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Thoughts on Shigofumi

Shigofumi is what might happen if you gave Boogiepop Phantom a chill pill that only kind of worked. Shigofumi’s principle character Fumiko bears a noticeable resemblance to Boogiepop, and also stays largely separated from other people’s affairs until it’s time for her to step in. However, instead of being a personification of death, she is a postal worker.

In the world of Shigofumi, those who have died go on to a place where they still have a body and are allowed to write one letter to a person who is still among the living. Fumika is one of many who are charged with delivering those letters, which can be more dangerous than it sounds. At best some people don’t take her seriously, at worst the message received from beyond the grave causes other people to, as they say, shoot the messenger.

At the onset, the series looks pretty easy to peg down; I predicted it would have individual story arcs that introduce new characters every episode or two. Before long there are hints at a plot involving Fumika and her mysterious past involving a connection to a high school student in a coma, which I assumed would come into play for the series conclusion. However, the series soon shows that it isn’t as concerned with the individuals Fumika encounters as it is about Fumika herself.

Learning more about Fumika is the series strongest point but unfortunately the writing, though far from bad, doesn’t always manage to stick the landing when it comes time to conclude a storyline. The earlier standalone episodes especially rely on characters having a sudden 180 degree change of heart or in other cases people who don’t get their just deserts. The series certainly doesn’t excuse their actions, but we don’t always get to see their bad karma come back to bite them.

Although the somewhat weak climaxes are unfortunate, there is a lot of compelling material. Dark and heavy subject matter is covered in a frank manner, including but not limited to, murder, abuse, negligence, bullying and psychological trauma. There are storylines that arguably hit too close to home, including for those of us in North America— one episode involves a high school class held hostage at gun point. The direction helps keep the viewers eyes drawn to the screen with lots of dark blues and shadowing during nighttime scenes and intentionally uncomfortable camera angles.

However, it’s not all bleak as Shigofumi allows itself some comedy relief. Unfortunately some of that relief is in the form of Fumika’s staff Kanaka, who insists it will become human someday. The staff’s character (who refers to itself as a “she”) is meant to juxtapose with the straight-laced Fumika, and at times it works, but “she” can also be fairly annoying and is overall the weakest part of the show. Thankfully a fellow Shigofumi-deliverer named Chiaki, despite appearing to be a typical antagonizing short-stacked anime girl, turned out to be more engaging than I gave her credit for.

The show’s production is well executed albeit not exceptional for a televised anime series; character designs are attractive and drawn consistently, though some of the younger male characters look similar. Though I mentioned she looks like Boogiepop, the uniform Fumika and her co-workers wear appears to be based more on a Japanese postal worker’s uniform for obvious reasons. The detailed backgrounds and muted color scheme are effective in establishing mood and also as previously mentioned the different camera angles and lens types really drive home some of the series more intense moments. Shigofumi is not the highest budgeted show out there- the series has it’s share of still pans and talking heads- but it’s not the lowest either and manages to allocate money for the sequences that truly need it.

Although the plots aren’t always resolved in a satisfactory way, I like how the conclusion to Fumika’s storyline played out in the final episodes, and the home video-exclusive 13th episode provides a nice “where are they now” follow up. While the series can get under your skin, Shigofumi also has it’s sweeter moments, such as Fumika and Chiaki trying to make a delivery to a cat. Thanks to those lighter moments the optimistic conclusion does not feel incompatible with the series as a whole, despite how deadly serious it can be.

Shigofumi was originally supposed to come out in U.S./Canada in 2008 from Bandai, but after numerous delays it looked like the series was stuck in some kind of limbo. Sentai Filmworks stepped in and somehow managed to wrestle it free, and I’m glad they did. Shigofumi is too uneven to achieve true greatness but it’s fairly well animated, has an interesting premise and isn’t afraid to go to some pretty dark places, resulting in at least one scene that will stick with yours truly for some time to come. It’s worth a look!

Why can’t video games be more subtitle-fan friendly?

I regularly watch anime in Japanese and English, but I rarely play Japanese video games with the original audio. Why? There are no real subtitles. Unlike anime DVDs/Blu-rays, which have a subtitle track specifically intended to be used with the Japanese audio, video games consistently only include captions of the English dub dialog (“dubtitles” if you will). This is problematic for multiple reasons; the captions may not quite represent what’s being said in Japanese, the captions aren’t timed to the original audio and several sections of a game can go entirely untranslated.

Most dubs of Japanese video games seem faithful enough, but even if the translation is well adapted for spoken English, that doesn’t necessarily equate to a good subtitle script. The captions aren’t even timed to the original audio. They look fine when the English audio is on, but with the Japanese track the captions can seemingly disappear and reappear at random.

Two Japanese games I’ve checked out recently are Vanquish and El Shaddai. There are some broad and artificially gruff-sounding voices in the dub for Vanquish so I tried to play the game in Japanese. I started off in a room for the in-game tutorial, where all the spoken instructions went entirely untranslated. Granted a brief note in English popped up that told me what to do, but I realized if I played the game in Japanese, any spoken dialog during the chaotic gameplay, including instructions or objectives, would go untranslated. The captions only come on during cut scenes.

This is a similar problem for Ed Shaddai. For example, save points are represented by a guardian angel named Lucifel who you can hear speaking directly to God when you approach him (on a cell phone no less- must be a direct line). There are no captions for Lucifel’s dialog so that little quirk in the original game’s script is lost if you choose the Japanese audio and don’t know the language. Thankfully the dub doesn’t sound bad- the dry yet casual way Lucifel speaks to God is amusing- but that’s not really the point. I want the option to watch and fully enjoy both versions, like I can with my anime DVDs.

That leads me to my ultimate question: why? Why can’t an additional script be made for the Japanese audio? I understand it would take extra time, effort and cost, but I have a hard time believing it would be cost-prohibitive. I imagine the real reason smacks of lazniess and the original audio is being included as an afterthought.

I can only guess that back in the PS2 era when bilingual Japanese games started coming out, the percentage of gamers who wanted authentic subtitles was small enough to ignore. After around 10 years the industry and consumers seem complacent with the status quo. That’s very unfortunate because it’s now nigh-impossible to affect that change in the video game industry. As it stands the only time we can hope to see an authentic script translation for Japanese dialog in video games is when a game is released without a dub, like the recent Yakuza games for the Playstation 3. Not exactly an appealing prospect.

Has anyone ever encountered a bilingual Japanese game that had an option for a closer translation of the original dialog?