One of Hayao Miyazaki's early works, Nausicaa demonstrates a very impressive film for its time. I remember seeing this Nausicaa on American television as an adolescent and the impression that it made. My memory of the film was one of a dark, imaginative, and somewhat grotesque vision of a future world, and seeing this film for the second time twenty years later leaves me equally impressed. While not quite as refined or mystical as some of Miyazaki's later films such as Spirited Away, Nausicaa intertwines grandiose imagery with a worthy story; Fans of Miyazaki or Japanimation should take time to add this wonderful film to their repertoire if they haven't done so already.
In a theme not uncommon for Miyazaki, the story centers around a few staple elements such a strong heroine figure, strange and other-worldly creatures of mythic proportions, and a quest upon which rests the fate of many. Princess Nausicaa inhabits a future on Earth risen from the aftermath of mankind's abuse of the natural world. Pollution from past industry and warfare have given rise to a whole new ecosystem of flora/fauna evolved to live and feed on the toxic waste. The images and quite haunting, and vastly impressive. Keep reminding yourself that this film was produced in 1984 and was a ground-breaking statement of artistry for the time.
Disney has preserved in-tact the original 2.0 Dolby Surround Japanese-language mix on this DVD presentation. In addition, they have provided a newly-recorded English dub for American Audiences (sound quality comparisons will appear in the technical area...this discussion is regarding content). While purists, including myself, usually wince at the thought of listening to an alternate/translated audio track when it comes to classic Japanimation, the English dub on this disc (and Porco Rosso) is exemplary: Every care was taken by a very talented group to provide a first-class translation with English Dialog carefully worked to match the on-screen action and lip movements of the characters. Just to give you a clue, the voice talent of Patrick Stewart, Uma Thurman, Alison Lohman, and Chris Sarandon are just a few of the actors responsible for the voice-overs. In this case, I'm comfortable with enjoying the luxury of the English dub for a variety of reasons:
- [*] The performances of the voice-over talent is first-rate and "fits" the spirit of the feature film.[*] Reading the subtitles takes the viewer's attention away from the lush visuals, which is not what the director intended.[*] The blocky/yellow subtitles mar the visual aesthetic integrity of the film and are often difficult to read when overlaid against complex background animation. Again, this is not a scenario the director intended for the viewer.[/list]
Yes, purists are formulating their well-crafted response to my suggestions. And I don't mean to start a debate or suggest that watching a feature film with its original audio track isn't a laudable goal for those who intend to go all the way. I only mean to point out that compromise is inevitable no matter which audio selection is made, and in this particular case, I find that given the quality of the English dub, that it is the compromise I prefer to choose. Please keep discussion on this point civil and respectful.
Note: Both English closed Captions and True subtitles are provided on this disc. When I turned on subtitles, the default was the CC track. It wasn't until enduring quite a bit of "Loud Crash!" and "Gun shot in distant..." that I realized there was a separate dialogue-only subtitle track. Purists intending on listening to the Japanese audio and reading the subtitles should take note so you don't needlessly find yourself aggrivated with the CC subtitle track.
Something of a mixed bag. For the most part, those without large wide-angle viewing systems will be very pleased. The image looks surprisingly clean from print damage such as scratches and dust. Colors are rich and feel remarkably faithful to the "look" of the source animation and appear consistent with the color palette seen on other Miyazaki films and is free from the dreaded "red push" that garnered such controversy a few years back on Spirited Away. That being said, colors are very warm, and not quite as saturated as some other top-drawer animation transfers but it is my suspicion that the slightly subtle push of vibrancy is faithful to the source. Black level isn't quite as "black" as it could be, but shadow detail is excellent and dark images maintain integrity and subtle shading and never get "crushed". Picture detail is satisfying from 1.6 screen-widths though I can't help but feel it has been just slightly softened by some sort of filtering process. The image looks bold and objectively beautiful.
There are a few issues that keep me from getting too enthusiastic. The slight softness of the image...though still satisfying...makes me wonder what I'm missing that's in the source film elements (note: at 1.6 screen-widths, a properly-mastered DVD, though still not as detailed as real projected film, does not make you *wonder* what you're missing). Not too troublesome but worth mentioning. However, there are two areas for concern that bothered me more significantly: The first is edge-haloing. You can see it quite easily in some scenes from a 1.6 screen-width; Unnecessary and adds evidence of detail filtering (EE is often added by some studios as a matter of course to try to counter-act the perceived loss of detail from pre-compression filtering). The other artifact that I found troublesome is harder to describe, and I'll do my best by characterizing it as what I believe to be some excessive DNR (digital noise reduction) processing.
The picture of Nausicaa, has a strange, electronic cleanliness to it...one that resembles an image that had been DNR processed to remove excessive film-grain. Still images look very "clean" and clear...which is usual with DNR as most grain-removal algorithms use inter-frame comparisons to identify grain and determine what to remove and what to let stay. However, the moment the image pans...the background breaks up into a ghastly digital-crawlie dithering effect. This might go unnoticed on a smaller screen but on a large display it can become distracting. When Nausicaa first lands her glider at the valley of the wind...the "camera" locks onto a shot of the sky with the mountains below, and then pans downward toward the ground. Notice how the sky looked stable and cleanly depicted before the pan...than dissolves into a blur of digital dither as the image pans downward...and then suddenly locks and becomes crystal-clear again the moment the pan stops at its new location.
It's my suspicion that the film elements for Nausicaa were excessively grainy, and the studio chose to employ some sort of digital film-grain removal in preparation for the DVD presentation. Not having seen the original film elements I'm not going to judge this decision (which is conjecture on my part) too harshly, but I do want to point out a digital artifact in this DVD presentation that is clearly not film-based in origin. Given unlimited resources, LDI could have done their magic and presented a cleaned image free from digital artifacting...but the vast sums of money it takes to utilize those skills and proprietary algorithms were being utilized for Bambi...another review I will have posted shortly.
All in all a pleasing video presentation, despite a few artifacts I feel should be mentioned. Wide-angle large-screen viewers may notice Nausicaa's video shortcomings, but even at 106 inches the overall experience of seeing this 20 year-old treasure projected was quite a pleasure. Those viewing from distances greater than 2 screen-widths from their displays will likely be quite impressed.
Picture Quality: 3 / 5
In the past I think I've been too ambiguous with my scoring or at least haven't applied it consistently from title to title, so I've endeavored to define my rating system more clearly to help make the scoring more meaningful (for all titles reviewed December 2004 and later):
|1-2||An absolute abomination. Hurts to watch. Think "Outland" (scan-line aliasing, chroma noise, dotcrawl)-- truly horrid.|
|2-3||Has some serious problems, but one can at least watch it without getting a headache despite all the problems though you might try to talk your guests into picking a different movie to watch if you have a large projection screen. Think Cold Mountain.|
|3-4||Good or at least "acceptable" on a big-screen, but not winning any awards and definitely room for improvement if you view the image wide-angle (though smaller-screen viewers may be quite content). Think the first extended cut of Fellowship of the Ring...decent picture but still some HF filtering and some edge-halos.|
|4-5||A reference picture that really makes the most of the DVD medium and shows extraordinary transparency to the film-source elements. Non-videophile observers can't help but remark "WOW". Think The Empire Strikes Back or the Fifth Element Superbit (full â€œ5â€ would be sans EE).|
No 5.1 Disney Enhanced for Home Theater mix here. Nasuicaa was mixed in stereo (surround) and preserving that historic mix is a valid path to take. Had source stems been available for a discrete 5.1 mix that could represent the original mono (2.0) down-mix balance and avoid matrix processing, it would have been nice, but as long as you have good center channel (or force the mono playback into L/R if you don't). Heck...back in my laserdisc days I used to listen to that glorious 2.0 linear PCM through my high-end D/A converter in pure stereo and sit in the middle of the listening area to get a phantom center with my passive hafler-esque surround processor leaving the front L/R mains completely untouched... (still have yet to have a DVD audio experience that can compare).
Back on topic. Where this mix shows its age is not in its lack of multi-channel encoding but rather in the philosophy by which it was recorded: Dynamic range is severely compressed. Bass is present, but lacks the authority one would expect in a more modern, dynamic mix. The sound is also decidedly "flat" in presentation...no lush sense of depth and dialogue...whether English or Japanese...sounds "dubbed" and distinct from the imagined environment of the animated world (more on English/Japanese mix comparison in a moment). Effects also sound "canned" and lacking in real acoustic context. All of this makes me appreciate just how far sound-mixing for animation has come in the last 20 years. Don't go into this expecting to experience audiophile-nirvana.
Japanese vs. English?
Different. The biggest difference will be easily audible to anyone...the Japanese audio is presented in its "natural" state without (so it seems) additional tinkering by the Disney audio technicians...whereas the English mix has been noise-filtered to remove all hiss and all subtle sonic detail along with it. When will these mixing engineers ever learn? The Fox studio stripped the soundtrack of their Hello Dolly DVD of all its original detail and nuance, and Disney just did the same thing with their DEHT mix of Mary Poppins. Well...maybe it's not so bad. Oh who am I kidding...it's bad...maybe not so terribly bad that you'd run screaming from the room...but just do a quick A/B and it's pretty clear. Actually...the reason why it might not be so terribly bad in this case is due to an inherent flaw of the original Japanese mix...that compressed/flat mix is also a tad on the bright side. For those of you with audio systems that tend towards detail/brightness, you might actually prefer the toned-down sound of the English dub. In my system, it's about 50/50...the Japanese version sounds a tad bright (and it does have audible hiss...though that doesn't bother me) but the English version sounds a tad muffled...take your pick. Definitely do not apply additional THX EQ adjustment to the English dub...that might force you to have to turn back on the subtitles to understand the dialogue.
One quick note when doing your English/Japanese A/B back-forth A/B comparison...at times the English dialogue has been intentionally muffled to correspond with when the characters are wearing face-masks. This subtle context-shift is ignored in the Japanese...the speech always sounds the same regardless of whether the on-screen character is masked or not. I mention this because if you're watching a scene where characters wearing face-masks are talking and suddenly decide to switch back/forth to do your audio comparison you'll think "Darn! DaViD isn't kidding...that English dub is seriously muffled!"...it fooled me for the better part of my review until I caught on to the pattern. So be sure to pick a non-masked sequence to get critical to keep it fair.
The Hiss Myth:
Just how bad is hiss?
How many of you remember the days of audio cassette tapes? We used to make romance mixes on them and give them to our girl-friends...remember? Anyway, if you remember, those cassette tapes also had this thing called "hiss". What did we do? Well...we'd put them on our car stereo or in our walkman and start listening to music...then we'd think...between songs... "Hmmm...I hear hiss...let me hit my noise-reduction button to get rid of it." Remember what happened next? All the highs disappeared from the music. You forced yourself to listen for a little while telling yourself that it was supposed to be "better" because now it was free from "hiss". And then...before the song finished...you gave in and turned off the Dolby noise-reduction because it sucked the life out of the music and that was just too great a price to pay...and maybe hiss wasn't so bad. (professional analog recordings made using Dolby S are exempt from this analogy because they are recorded in tandem with Dolby S decoding...the variation in consumer-level Dolby B/C NR never permitted a high level of fidelity)
Nothing changes with historic audio recordings for your movies except that the techies playing with the knobs behind those $$$ consoles mastering the audio for your DVD don't know what music is supposed to sound like and so they just electronically muffle everything until all the hiss disappears. Did I offend anyone? Well listen to the 5.1 mix on Mary Poppins and the 5.1 DD mix on Hello Dolly and compare to the originals. That offends ME. I don't mean to imply that all audio engineers are tone-deaf, but it seems troublesome that these sort of problems happen at all...and studios should take measures to ensure that folks who know what good sound actually sounds like get to play with the knobs and levers at those mixing boards.
Overall...well on the one hand the audio is decent enough. On the other hand it shows its limitations in comparison with modern multi-channel animation mixes with much more dynamic range, surround activity, and attention to detail (on-screen acoustic context for instance...having sounds respond to the "environment" as if it really exists instead of always sounding the same). But at the end of the day this is the original mix that Miyazaki and his folks dreamed up for you...and you've got it here, faithful (the Japanese) to the original. The English dub, while portraying an exemplary performance (mentioned in my feature-review), suffers from the "Disney Noise Reduction" effect that seems to becoming standard fare these days (hand in hand with a little image filtering and EE), but is still listenable and those with bright-sounding audio systems may not find the dampened top-end objectionable given the bright-character of original recording.
Let me slap an arbitrary number on it:
Japanese Sound Quality: 3.5 / 5
English Sound Quality: 3 / 5
Two discs?!? Extras are there but seemingly light for two-whole discs. Here's the secret...that second disc is reserved exclusively for the "Storyboard" version of the movie...
- [*]Behind the Microphone: A cool featurette about the making of the English audio dub (no mention of noise-reduction...hehe). I had already decided that I preferred listening to English mix based on my preference for compromising the audio aspect of the film in favor of preserving the visuals (see thoughts in feature review). However, seeing the care that went into the performances and writing for this English mix just made me more resolved...input by folks like Patrick Stuart, Uma Thurman, Alison Lohman and others. Lots of interviews with the various voice-actors. Recommended...don't skip this bonus feature. (a similar feature exists on the Porco Rosso DVD)
[*]Original Japanese theatrical Trailer: I think I counted six. Yes hold on to your trousers...this Disney DVD actually has trailers for the feature film! They appear to be sourced from video masteres (dot crawl etc.) and are presented 4x3 lbx...most likely as they appeared on Japanese television. Trailers are presented with user-defeat able subtitles in original Japanese language. Fans will enjoy. (a similar feature exists on the Porco Rosso DVD)
[*]The Birth Story of Ghibli: An approximately 30 minute featurette about how the Ghibli film studio came into being with a healthy dose of Miyazaki film-history mingled in. Fans should really enjoy this...it feels "authentic" and was made for a Japanese audience...this is not a Disney documentary. The program is subtitled in English and quite interesting...and entertaining. [/list] [b]Disc 2:
- [*][b]Feature Storyboard: This is rather interesting. The entire movie...replete with your choice of Japanese/English 2.0 audio and optional English subtitles is duplicated on disc 2 in storyboard form. Fascinating for fans, but probably not something most viewers will take 117 minutes to discover. I found it remarkable how similar the storyboard sketches were to the finished animation...I guess since it's all drawing anyway that's not so hard to do. Coolest thing...this feature is presented in 16x9 encoding just slightly windowboxed on all four sides to avoid overscanning. (a similar feature exists on the Porco Rosso DVD) I am VERY impressed that the Disney folks presented these storyboards in 1.85:1 16x9 and I give them two thumbs up.
While slightly dated by today's animation (Japanimation) standards in terms of image and sound technicalities, Nausicaa is a majestic film and at long last has come to DVD. While there are a few image-quality flaws due to electronic/digital processing that might be noticed by wide-angle viewers, overall the picture is quite impressive and does good justice to animation from which it is derived. The 2.0 audio mix is not "demo quality" but faithfully reproduces the original Japanese soundtrack and provides the region 1 audience with a well-acted English dub providing an alternative for those who would rather view this film without subtitling. Extras are less numerous than one might expect for a 2-disc affair, but they are also a bit unconventional...and fans should be pleased with the feature-length storyboard presentation on disc 2 as well as the inclusion of original trailers. Nausicaa created quite a stir when it was first released theatrically in Japan...and the majesty of Miyazaki's vision is now available for you to own on DVD. If you enjoy Japanimation or have enjoyed other Miyazaki films such as Spirited Away, I recommend you take look at Nausicaa.