First Impressions: Crunchyroll and Milky Holmes

From last year’s Hollywood retelling starring Robert Downey, Jr. as the eponymous detective to the recent BBC television adaptation and Mitchell & Webb’s poignant series climax, Sherlock Holmes is making a comeback in the modern media. In a not entirely unusual turn of events, it seems that even Japan is getting in on the action.

The image that you see above has been my desktop wallpaper for four months now. It is also the primary reason that I have been highly anticipating this particular show. Milky Holmes, a franchise that has so far spanned the media of card game, UMD, plastic figurine, wrist towel and audio CD alongside desktop wallpaper, is now receiving its inevitable anime adap. And, like much of today’s animated fare from Japan, it’s getting an English-language release much sooner than one would have expected in the past.

See, piracy is an ever-existant problem. Television series are posted online within hours – or even minutes – of their broadcast, and, with the rise of easy-to-use subtitling tools and the fall of translation quality standards, an episode of a popular Japanese television series could be ripped from its home, slapped with a quick-’n'-nasty subtitle track and hoist, kicking and screaming, out to thousands of BitTorrent leechers. The English-language anime distribution industry, recognising this problem, decided to counter these “fansubs” by lowering themselves to their level; with permission of the Japanese publishers, anime episodes are released to the masses as they are broadcast in Japan, with a slap-dash translation that at least bears the privilege of being legitimately funded. To the end user, the benefit of not having to wait the 10-18 months for the traditional home video release is apparently worth sacrificing almost all other benefits.

This New & Exciting™ distribution method is known as simulcasting, which, as you may infer, is all about simultaneous broadcasting. Usually, the term refers to the transmission of the same programme on more than one television channel at once, such as an international sporting event or some other live broadcast along those lines. As anime simulcasting relies on pre-subtitled, pre-encoded files streamed from a server (as a couple of premature leaks have revealed), it’s not strictly simulcasting in the literal sense, but that’s what everyone calls it for some reason. Perhaps the most popular service of its kind is Crunchyroll, a once illegitimate anime-on-demand website that has since changed its tune and now makes an honest profit out of giving fans the newest – and, therefore, best – anime series that they can get their hands on.

I've already amassed a fair pile of Milky Holmes-related rubbish.

With all of the promotion that Milky Holmes has been receiving, a Crunchyroll simulcast was inevitable. I was perplexed that they announced it only one day before its premiere, though, when they really should’ve coincided their announcement with Hyper Japan 2010, a recent London event dedicated to Japanese culture featuring a prominent presence by Bushiroad, the driving force behind the Milky Holmes franchise, who brought along the four lead voice actresses as well as a few boxes of merchandise.

During the Q&A at the presentation, one audience member asked the panel what Milky Holmes was actually about. The brevitic response from the translator: “They are all detectives.” Aside from the characters being named after famous detectives and possessing a variety of obligatory superhuman abilities (called TOYS – I assume that the T stands for “telekinetic” and the other letters also stand for words), mystery-solving would appear to be the sole premise. Coupled with the fact that the show is currently only available online, this’d be the sort of production that I’d usually skip. But I’d been looking forward to this one; I wanted to at least give it the benefit of the doubt. So, although Crunchyroll’s subscription-only episodes become free-to-view after a week or so, I decided to give their free trial a try and experience the first episode of Tantei Opera Milky Holmes in glorious subtitled H.264.

Being a simulcast, I wasn’t expecting a particularly good translation, but alarm bells started to ring when I checked the announcement and found that they had referred to main character Sherlock (or “シャロ” for short, which I read as Shirley) as “Sheryl”. This is to be expected from a hastily-transcribed press release, but, remember, this is simulcasting that we’re dealing with; this apparent mistake was, indeed, present in the show’s subtitles. Aside from a couple of other questionable decisions (TOYS is now lowercase & plural, some of the names are given in Japanese order for seemingly no reason), the subtitles are cheerfully adequate. The awkward phrasing and timing issues are certainly not something that I’d expect from a home video release, though.

The episode itself begins with the title characters locked in combat with the bad guys, a standard issue four-strong group of “Gentlemen Thieves” who, we can assume, will serve as the sole antagonists throughout the series. As the evildoers make their escape, there is an explosion and, in the confusion, the Milky Holmes girls realise that they have lost their TOYS for seemingly no reason. We’re then treated to a sample of what their life is like a month later; being students at the prestigious Holmes Detective Academy, losing their abilities has also lost them their powers of deduction and their high social standing within the school. What’s more, the bad guys from earlier are now stationed at the academy, posing as students and/or members of staff, whose nefarious goal is apparently to drive the girls out of the school and generally make them miserable. Still, despite their accommodation being downgraded to a wood cabin at the hands of the villain’s leader/student council president, they appeared to be in reasonably high spirits as the episode came to a close.

With my expectations as high as they were, disappointment was guaranteed. But from the first episode alone, which was practically nothing but exposition, it’s hard to gauge an opinion. The animation was passable, I suppose. The art style didn’t make me want to kill myself. And I’ve got to give it credit for actually succeeding at being cute, unlike the attempts of other popular franchises. I think that the thing that annoyed me the most was that this preview clip (which appears to represent the PSP game) featured a lovely little activation jingle when their TOYS are enabled, but in the show they just made a generic “ka-shing” sound. Maybe they’re saving it for when they inevitably get their powers back. I dunno. Seeing as they didn’t actually solve any mysteries in this first episode, I’ll be suspending further opinion until later on in the series.

Signing up for Crunchyroll, by the way, was relatively painless, although I had to give them credit card information in order to begin the free trial (which, I’m told, I can cancel at any time). It does automatically sign you up for their e-mail newsletter, so watch out for that. My main issue with Crunchyroll is not so much that it’s also a social network, but that there appears to be no way to disable social features like comments on the video page. I don’t need to join yet another social network and I don’t want other people’s opinions showing up whenever I’m watching something. If I wanted commentary, I’d go to Twitter. I did, however, think that it was nice – if a little tacky – that they have an achievement system.

My very first Crunchyroll achievement. Emotions overflowing.

I’m not going to continue my subscription after the free trial’s up. Crunchyroll still doesn’t have many shows that I care about; I prefer watching my anime on the ol’ CRT; I am morally against simulcasting; they put their shows up for free anyway. But for the time being, at least, I’ll be sticking with Milky Holmes. It’s cute.

And so are these exclusive Milky Homes statuettes, individually bundled with the upcoming home video release of the series. I must have them. Even if they do end up costing me another £250. ㋼

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