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Otakon2010: Of Unicorns and Gundam Unicorn

Although final days at conventions are only half days and can be less substantial than the first two days in my experience, my Sunday at Otakon 2010 was fully occupied by two satisfying events. Longtime readers may recall the tribute I paid to what I consider one of the finest Rankin-Bass productions and a marvelous cartoon from my childhood, the 1982 film The Last Unicorn (also noteworthy: Ed Liu’s 2007 interview with Peter S. Beagle about the movie’s 25th anniversary DVD release). This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a screening of the film with the author of the titular original novel himself, who offered comments throughout the presentation. Perhaps the most interesting comment I heard is that the character designs in the movie were essentially a product of the imaginations of both American and Japanese artists. All designs were originally done in the US, then the Japanese artists came back with some alternative designs. Some of those ended up being accepted, whereas other designed stayed the same and others even combined ideas from both sides. Also interesting is that a flashback scene of the demonic Red Bull herding Unicorns was animated in “1′s” instead of the more normal “2′s”. In simple terms, this means that the animation for that scene was intentionally richer and more fluid with much higher fps (frames per second) for the animation.

Mr. Beagle also pointed out his favorite scene, where Molly Grue first encounters the unicorn and has her “where have you been?!” outcry (regrettably a “damn you” from the dialogue is censored in the current release, though the scene is still effective). As a fan, I was gratified to see and hear all this firsthand. I also encountered two very welcome details about The Last Unicorn. First, it turns out that this past spring a six-issue comic book adaptation finally launched in April 2010 via IDW Publishing. The comic is said to be faithful to the story and it has the support of Mr. Beagle, who wrote positive comments about it in the first issue. Having promptly paged through that first issue myself at the Peter S. Beagle/Conlan Press booth in the dealer’s room, I can only say that the praise of its beauty by reviewers is no exaggeration whatsoever. I personally have the original novel to get through first before anything else, but I left Otakon that day anticipating seeing more.
Second, while it’s not a done deal just yet fans were informed that there is a very good chance that the movie will end up with a Blu-Ray release sometime between now and summer 2011. Even today I find that The Last Unicorn stands as a beautiful film and the remastering that was done for the 25th anniversary release was a noticeable improvement, so I’m personally seriously excited at the prospect of the movie being presented at its absolute best.

After experiencing this classic once again, I moved on to a well-attended Gundam panel at 11 AM with dozens of fans present. Its focus was intended to be mostly on Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn, so naturally this was yet another event attended by Michael Sinterniklaas and Stephanie Sheh. Also present was Sunrise producer Mr. Ozaki and marketer and production assistant Loy Fruel from Bandai. After a brief overview of the Gundam franchise, the panel quickly shifted to plenty of discussion and Q&A about the Gundam Unicorn project and Gundam in general. As he did multiple times throughout the weekend, Sinterniklaas spoke of Unicorn’s quality and his strong support for delivering simultaneous releases to fans, which is happening with Gundam Unicorn and did happen with the Blu-Ray release of the sci-fi OVA Freedom and the ImaginAsian TV broadcast of the series Kurokami: The Animation. The sheer scale and challenge of dubbing Gundam Unicorn for a simultaneous release was reiterated and fleshed out even more. Sinterniklaas commented that every word and sound of the dub was “scrutinized to be perfect,” a sentiment I heard him give voice to during his Friday morning panel and at Bandai’s industry panel. Indeed, it was made clear that the translation was very specific and “well reviewed” by Sunrise staff and Gundam expert and production supervisor Mark Simmons. The anecdote about the first episode being dubbed over the 2009 Thanksgiving holiday came up again, though this time with additional trivia; the entire group even ended up having Thanksgiving dinner together, with Sheh–who is a vegetarian–apparently cooking the meal. Now let’s remember, we also have multiple anecdotes now about how she was sick during this time! Referring to the dinner, Mr. Sinterniklaas commented that it was the best turkey he’d ever had.

The Q&A prompted a variety of comments during the panel. One fan who had gotten started with the Gundam franchise by watching Gundam 00 asked about the best way to get started on the franchise after that; Ozaki responded by singling out the original Mobile Suit Gundam movie trilogy and then following up by saying that Gundam 00 and the Gundam Seed series were also good ways for young, new viewers to start. A general question about favorite mobile suits prompted Ozaki to tell a story about how he recently accompanied Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino to Korea, where he was asked the exact same question by a fan over there. This got a good laugh from the audience. Ozaki proceeded to tell everyone that Tomino’s favorite is Zeon’s Dom mobile suit from the original Gundam, since it was one of his early concepts. Another fan referenced G-Savior (spontaneous groans ensued), proceeding to ask if a proper Gundam live action movie could ever be made. Ozaki said there were no such plans and went on to promptly say that he didn’t want to discuss G-Savior at all, sparking great applause. The audience was then asked a hypothetical question about whether they would want a new or an old story for such a film production; I was pleased to find that the majority was clearly in favor of an original story instead of a rehash.

Several questions were asked having to do with older Gundam titles, from the chances of rebooting Gundam F91 (no plans at all) to DVD releases for Double Zeta Gundam and Victory Gundam from the Universal Century saga (for now, not very likely) to redubbing Gundam titles already released (financially unrealistic). Another question dealt with ways to make the original Gundam continuity more popular in America, leading to citations of the recent release of Zeta Gundam’s modernized film trilogy and an acknowledgment of Unicorn being a “brave experiment” as both a simultaneous release and a fresh animated project for the Universal Century. On another note entirely, that question about older Gundam dubs being replaced was followed by a comment about the quality of NYAV Post’s dubbing and a request that they be allowed to dub the upcoming Turn A Gundam, prompting very enthusiastic applause and cheering and a transparently positive reaction from Sheh and especially Sinterniklaas. The response from Mr. Fruel? “We will take it under advisement.” Fans did well to express sentiment like this with both a Bandai and a Sunrise representative in the room.

During the panel I was able to approach the microphone and ask a question about the process for writing the script, remarking that I considered it just as polished as the oft-praised dub. I also managed a related brief question about whether there was a specific line of dialogue from Gundam Unicorn that stood out for Stephanie Sheh. After some thought, Sheh chose Audrey’s “I don’t need you” to Banagher from episode one. She did a few takes and thought the delivery was too mean at first whereas the end result was, in her view, an attempt of her character to push Banagher away without being cruel. At other times during the panel Sheh also remarked that a translated script could go through five or six revisions before it would be finally considered done, as well as that there wasn’t too much liberty to alter the original script since they were required to be very careful that each line is adapted to mean what it is meant to mean. For his part Sinterniklaas was very pleased with the question, as he worked heavily on the dub’s script. Commenting that Unicorn was the “…most complex thing I’ve worked on in 16 years,” Sinterniklaas revealed that he records every single line of dialogue himself before dubbing even starts just to “see how it flows” so that he can then work to make sure that each line “sounds natural”; he considers this essential for a good dub and a significant point of weakness for many dubs that fall short. The panel concluded on a positive note with Sinterniklaas encouraging fans to continue offering their constructive opinions and feedback, declaring that fan opinion is heard and capable of making a real difference.

If I got anything out of Otakon weekend, it was awareness of just how difficult it really is to deliver a cartoon made in Japan to English-speaking fans ASAP. Indeed, the challenge that a well done simultaneous release presents seems great enough that I wonder to what extent it can truly be the future for the industry at large, even as I remain deeply supportive of the example of Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn and the first-rate quality of the project. Still, a “bold experiment” it truly is, and quite clearly a labor of love on everyone’s part with an emphasis on the “labor” part of the phrase. In light of this I’m certainly pleased that, according to Bandai’s positive comments about Gundam Unicorn sales at least, my fellow fans are backing up the enterprise with their wallets. May that support continue.

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