Review for Fairy Tail: Part 9
From DVD to Blu-ray back to DVD again, Fairy Tail fans have got it hard when it comes to their shonen action show of choice. We started off with some decent DVDs but from Part 5, we started getting the show on Blu-ray, and on top of that Manga Entertainment went back and re-released Parts 1-4 in two Blu-ray Collections. We even got the movie. And then at the end of last year, it all fell to crap, when Manga announced that the Collections would henceforth be DVD only. No Collection 3 on Blu-ray, meaning no uniformity on collector’s shelves. Only the individual parts would be Blu-ray, Manga said. So we all waited for the pre-order listing of Part 9, and that remained resolutely DVD only. Eventually it was confirmed, with no explanation ever given as to why. From Part 9 onwards, Fairy Tail will be DVD only.
But it’s worse than that. For DVD, up till now, Manga have been sourcing Madman Entertainment’s transfers, which maintain certain standards when it comes to disc authoring in terms of subtitling and chapters. Here’s the thing. Manga are prohibited from releasing NTSC discs in the UK, and up to Part 8, Madman had been authoring their Australian release of Fairy Tail as native PAL. To save money, from Part 9 onwards, Madman have switched to using the US NTSC masters for their DVD discs. From Part 9 onwards, Manga Entertainment have to create their own masters for Fairy Tail on DVD, which in recent years has meant dodgy subtitling and illogical chapter placements. But with Fairy Tail Part 9, it gets worse even than that. A whole lot worse!
The Kingdom of Fiore is a rather special place, a nation of some 17 million where magic exists, is commonplace, and is a commodity to be bought and sold. Those who become proficient in magic are the wizards, and together they form guilds to serve the community, or serve themselves. The most famous, and indeed the most infamous guild of them all is Fairy Tail. 17-year-old Lucy Heartfilia is a wizard, or rather she wants to be a wizard. She’s already skilled in a Celestial magic, able to summon spirits to do her bidding using Gatekeys. Her dream is to be in Fairy Tail, and when she meets a travelsick young wizard named Natsu, and his talking cat companion Happy, it seems like destiny has brought them together. Now Lucy has joined the Fairy Tail Guild, and with its unique roster of wizards, including Natsu, the ice wizard Gray Fullbuster, and the armour wizard Erza Scarlet, and the flying cat Happy, they undertake the toughest, the most challenging, and the weirdest of missions.
Manga Entertainment release the next twelve episodes of Fairy Tail across two discs, and as this collection begins, the Edolas arc has just concluded, and we are about to commence upon the Tenrou Island arc. It’s that time of year again for the Fairy Tail Guild members. The Chunin exams are upon them, I mean the S-Class Wizard test, which sees eight candidates selected from the best performing wizards that year to compete for the one S-Class Wizard place on Tenrou Island, a magical place sacred to the Fairy Tail Guild. For Cana Alberona, it’s her fifth and final chance to become an S-Class wizard like Erza, Mirajane and Gildarts, but this year she’s up against the likes of Natsu, Gray, Elfman, and Juvia. Fortunately, they don’t have to face the challenge alone, and can choose one lesser wizard to be their partner. When Lucy hears Cana’s story, she volunteers to help her, but there’s a dark outside force with ominous plans in store for this year’s S-Class test.
97. Best Partners
98. Who’s the Lucky One?
99. Natsu vs. Gildarts
101. Black Wizard
102. Iron Soul
103. Makarov Charges
104. Lost Magic
105. Fire Dragon vs. Flame God
106. Grand Magic World
107. Arc of Embodiment
108. Human Gate
So we switch back to DVD releases for Fairy Tail a few volumes before the series goes HD native for its animation. That’s smart; about as smart as ditching Madman’s perfectly adequate native PAL transfers for an in-house NTSC-PAL conversion. We now get to see Fairy Tail in a format that was obsolete for anime five years ago. Sure, Manga’s 1.78:1 anamorphic presentation of Fairy Tail may offer smooth animation, smoother than anything we’ve seen previously, but that smoothness hides a multitude of sins, not least the softness of the standards conversion, effectively scaling up 480 lines of definition to 576 (Madman create their DVDs from HD masters). You get the blended frames and ghosting typical of NTSC-PAL, although to this release’s credit, it’s something that you’ll notice really only if you pause and frame advance. But the real horror is in the compression. For the still, or relatively static dialogue scenes, the show looks fine, but come any action scene, usually the whole point of a shonen adaptation, then the image becomes horribly degraded by compression artefacts, mosquito noise, even pixellation to the point that it looks more like a VCD (remember those). Woe betide you actually press pause during an action sequence. It was barely tolerable on a 28-inch CRT screen. I’d hate to watch these discs on anything larger.
You have the choice between DD 5.1 Surround English, and DD 2.0 Stereo Japanese, with optional translated subtitles and a signs only track. I sampled the English dub, and found it to be a typical anime comedy dub, high pitched female voices, and loudness and manic intensity substituting for humour. My preference as always was for the Japanese audio track with the subtitles. It too is adequate, although one slight point of annoyance for some may be the lead character of Lucy played by Aya Hirano, who simply supplies another variation of her stock Haruhi Suzumiya tsundere voice. Otherwise it’s a fairly run of the mill audio track, playing the show for laughs, with little yet to stretch the characters. More impressive is the show’s music, which with a pop Celtic theme supplements the show’s magical themes very wells.
The audio may be fine, but where Manga Entertainment’s authoring of Fairy Tail completely falls apart is with the subtitles, which to not put too fine a point on it, are borked. For the first eight episodes in the collection, episodes 97 to 104, the subtitles play fine up to the halfway point in the episode, and then slip out of sync thereafter, running ahead of the dialogue to the point that a subtitle will match up to the wrong character. Episode 104 isn’t quite as bad as the others, and while episode 105 shows a little variance in timing, it is to all intents and purposes, fine. Then the final three episodes in the collection, 106 to 108 differ in that the subtitles are fine to the halfway point, out of sync for the third chapter in the episode, and then back in sync for the final chapter in the episode. I spot checked the English dialogue with the signs track, and that exhibited the same issue at the same points, the text translations preceding the onscreen Japanese text by a couple of beats.
The discs present the episodes with animated menu screens, but as is typical of Manga Entertainment, the chapter placement is wholly illogical. Forget skipping credit sequences and the like.
Disc 1 has not one, but two commentaries. The first is an audio commentary on episode 97, with ADR Director Tyler Walker, Tia Ballard (Happy), and Todd Haberkorn (Natsu), as they settle in for an agreeable if typically uninteresting friendly chat.
The second is a video commentary on episode 99, which sees Tyler Walker, Todd Haberkorn, and Tia Ballard joined by script adaptor and voice of Mirajane, Monica Rial. This time you actually get to see the cast, with the episode running in the corner of the screen. It’s another agreeable commentary if you’re into the dub and appreciate knowing more about the process.
Disc 2 offers two sets of textless credits, the US Trailer, and one more agreeable dub commentary, this time for episode 107 with ADR Director Tyler Walker, Michael Johnson (Caprico/Capricorn), and Justin Locklear (Rusty Rose).
I’m sure this is a familiar story, one that anyone can recall from their childhood. It certainly happened to me; the longing for a much lauded toy, the in-thing, the object that the friends in school had that caused much jealousy, and constant pestering of the parents. Months would pass, and the whining would eventually wear them down, and then, one bright Christmas morning, or a sunny birthday afternoon, the present would be delivered, unwrapped, the secret revealed, that I finally owned the plaything of my dreams. I’d immediately drop what I was doing, and devote my full attention to my new possession. I’d play with it. I’d play the hell with it. I’d give it the full work out to make up for my months of not having it, the months of jealousy. Of course it would break that same day, and then would follow the tears, the anger, the betrayal, the plaintive complaints, the begging to my dad to turn back time, to fix it, to get a new one. All I would get would be a scolding, and the kind of disappointed looks that you’d never want to see from your parents, and I’d then have to live with the understanding that I’d never see that toy again, that it was gone, and with that would come the self-loathing, the realisation that it was all my fault. I was the one who broke it...
For three years, Australia’s Madman Entertainment took care of all the DVD minutiae when it came to Fairy Tail, and Manga benefitted. For over a year, Funimation has taken care of the Blu-ray authoring when it came to Fairy Tail in the UK. In 2015, the buck finally passes to Manga Entertainment, it becomes their responsibility to bring Fairy Tail to anime fandom and they break it on their first attempt. Manga Entertainment have broken Fairy Tail!
Strike one; Manga ditches the Blu-ray releases just before the point in the show where it starts to benefit from HD. Strike two; the same old authoring issues that we’ve come to expect from Manga Entertainment, the random and illogical chaptering which means that you can’t even skip the credit sequences and previews. And for this collection, the second opening theme on these discs is the kind of Eurobeat oompah-oompah thing that makes my ears bleed, and I’m left fast forwarding like it’s some kind of VHS. Strike three; the transfer. There’s no excuse for an NTSC-PAL standards conversion in these days, and by doing so, Manga have taken a step back into history, the kind of discs they used to put out ten years ago. Worse than that actually, as those at most had five episodes per disc. Now we’re talking six episodes, seven if you include the video commentary, and while Funimation and Madman can encode that much video without issue, Manga do so and manage to turn any action sequence into an over-compressed pixellated mess. I expect to see compression artefacts on DVDs on large screens when I pause the disc during an action scene. I don’t expect to see pixellation during playback on a small screen. And you’re out, Manga.
The subtitle issues are just the two bullets in the head to stop the corpse from twitching at this point. Someone more forgiving than I might let Manga off for the lack of Blu-ray, maybe that didn’t sell well, they might forgive the lack of decent chaptering, they might like Eurobeat, and they might even forgive the transfer. I’ll admit that before I was hit in the face by the compression, I was thinking that I’d never seen Fairy Tail’s animation this smooth before. But even if I was that forgiving, and I’d have to be a saint, the subtitles are broken to the degree that they leave the Japanese version unwatchable. This is then effectively a dub only release, and even then you might scratch your heads at the timing of the signs translations.
I’ve hardly the strength left to talk about the show itself at this point, and no doubt my opinion of it has been lowered by the Manga-quality filter I’ve just had to watch it through. But this is one of those points in a shonen show’s run where the action and the story get good again. If you want an easy point of comparison, this is Fairy Tail’s Chunin Exam arc. The strongest wizards in the Fairy Tail Guild get together to see who should be promoted to the next level, this being done by taking a test on Tenrou Island, Fairy Tail sacred land. So the first few episodes in the collection are light-hearted comedic affairs, fun but not overly taxing. But it turns out that the dark wizard Zeref is at rest on the island, although he’s not in total control of his powers, and then the dark guild Grimoire Heart shows up, who want to possess Zeref and his powers, using them to remake the world in their image.
Things get serious at this point, with the dark guild’s top seven wizards attacking, ruining the S-Class Wizard Test, and throwing Fairy Tail a few defeats before they can begin fighting back. You get a whole bunch of wacky new characters too, and some seriously interesting fights, not least between Dragon Slayer Natsu, and a God Slayer named Zancrow, whose flame not even Natsu can deal with. On top of that, we get to learn some interesting history about Fairy Tail’s past, and Makarov gets the shock of his life when his predecessor as guild master returns, only on the side of the bad guys. There’s also a revelation about Lucy’s past as well.
To put it plainly, this is the Fairy Tail that I normally enjoy and relish, great comedy, great action, and no little heart. Except Manga Entertainment went and broke it and it’s not as much fun anymore. This is the point where the genuine Fairy Tail fans start looking for better alternatives from overseas.