There has never been a better time to write about film. In the twenty years since the coming of the DVD, there have been some truly marvellous opportunities for the critic, largely caused by the presence of all that memory space on the disc, and the search for added value. The commentary track is not a recent invention. They were available on laser discs beforehand, and sometimes transferred to VHS. Somewhere in my office I still have a “collector’s” VHS of The Usual Suspects that dials down the audio and replaces it with the director and writer talking about their film.
There have been occasions, hand on heart, when I have bought a film on DVD and simply watched it for the commentary. If I have already seen it at the cinema, maybe I don’t actually want to see it again. But I’ll pay £20 to hear a two-hour lecture from its writer or director. Probably not from the voice actors, though.
And I’ve even done some commentaries myself, sometimes known in anime fandom as Clementaries. Unique selling points or wastes of bandwidth… you decide!
Appleseed: An odd beginning, with the film company only discovering on the day that they didn’t have the facilities in-house, and having to move me and my fellow commentator to another studio. By the time we started recording, I’d been kicking my heels for six or seven hours. My fellow performer wasn’t feeling that talkative, either — for a bunch of reasons, including some personal stuff that she was keeping from everyone, but amounted to (as far as I could tell), her having to move house on the day that she was also recording a commentary track. None of these things is a welcome discovery to make when you are recording LIVE and can’t really backtrack, but we managed. I talked for England, only to have some reviewers complain that (a) I was drowning her out, or that (b) my attempts to elicit anything more than monosyllabic answers from her about a day’s work she’d done nine years earlier were some sort of convoluted attempt to chat her up. It taught me a valuable lesson about any commentary. It’s a live performance, but it is recorded, warts and all, for posterity. Anyone can have a few stumbles and fluffs, but you’re basically on your own. Since then, I have insisted on being just that.
A.Li.Ce and Blue Remains. A year on, and I’m back on the commentary trail, recording A.Li.Ce and the next anime on the same day on a remote Welsh industrial estate. I took great pleasure in talking about the development of digital animation, and the fact that one was recorded right after the other makes A.Li.Ce and Blue Remains a sort of two-parter on the development of CG in anime.
Detonator Orgun. Notable for my invention of the Detonator Orgun drinking game. At least, that’s all I can remember about this one.
Vampire Hunter D. Partway through this DVD, while I talk about various culture’s vampire traditions, you can hear me having an idea for a script that would eventually become Snake Head.
Spriggan. My favourite, if not only that for the first time I was hired to talk about a film that I had genuinely followed from its very inception, having been formerly hired to translate the pre-production script by a company that was considering investing in it. So I actually had some genuine behind-the-scenes information about the production that nobody else could have supplied. And I also took the opportunity to ask why the people who build secret underground hideouts are always on time and on budget, unlike the people fixing my bathroom.
Spirited Away. The commentary that never happened. I spent a week writing 25,000 words of notes, ready for the ultimate, super-duper commentary on the production and mythical background of an Oscar winning movie. This was to make a rashly-advertised Special Edition actually Special. Except the distributor didn’t have the right to actually add content to one of Studio Ghibli’s DVDs, and were slow to realise this. Eventually, they cancelled the recording the day before it was scheduled, and sheepishly paid me off.
Robot Hunter Casshan. In an elaborate sting operation, an agent from ADV Films attempted to poison me an hour before I went in to record this for Manga Entertainment. An innocent lunch beforehand with Hugh David had a series of unpleasant after-effects in the studio, and left me drooling and… well, probably too much information. But we recorded it anyway, with a brief pause for 20 minutes about halfway through while I writhed in agony.
Golgo 13. I sat down in the booth and started wittering confidently about missing footage from this movie, only to discover it had all been put back in. While the producer pointed at me through the window and laughed, I had to spin on a dime and re-tool my thoughts. We could have gone back to re-record, but Manga Entertainment quite liked the sound of me discovering, live, that long-lost material had been restored, and rather enjoyed the sudden enthusiasm I apparently developed. Actually, I think they just liked hearing me sputter with surprise.
Vexille. An interesting dilemma, with an intensely political film but a director who insisted (largely, I suspect, out of misconstrued Japanese modesty) that it’s just mindless entertainment. “Jonathan Clements is having none of that!” commented one reviewer, as I proceeded to draw a whole bunch of political parallels, as well as commenting on further developments in digital animation. A nice commentary, and eventually situated on the disc with a bunch of other material in which the director and I inadvertently end up wholly agreeing with each other. We’d both been misrepresented, it turned out.
Weathering with You. A first for Anime Limited and for me — a commentary track not for the Blu-ray or DVD, but for an online film festival, available exclusively through Screen Anime as part of the 2020 Scotland Loves Anime festival. Wonderful fun for me, and the first test of my covid-lockdown-inspired home studio (i.e. recorded in my lounge).
Wrath of Daimajin. My first-ever live-action commentary, on the third film in Daiei’s Daimajin series. As part of my standard research on this overlooked kids’ movie from the 1960s, I acquired a newly published oral history of Daiei, in which the producers discussed an awful cock-up on the production that threatened to shut it down, and forced the crew to put in two weeks’ overtime on reshoots. This completely transformed the commentary into quite a gripping account of how to salvage a production.
Heroes of the East. My first Chinese film commentary, on Lau Kar-leung’s Heroes of the East, in which a rich kid from Shanghai somehow ends up marrying a Japanese woman who is also a ninja. A thinkly veiled excuse for a series of fights pitching numerous martial arts against each other, but the marital-strife plot means that nobody actually dies.
8 Diagram Pole Fighter. A commentary track only available outside the UK, on the US Arrow release of Lau Kar-leung’s troubled production about the medieval tribulations of the Yang family. Lots to say about the cycle of Yang stories in Chinese history, and the oddities of China during the early Song dynasty, all to increase your viewing pleasure in a film about people hitting each other with sticks.
Martial Arts of Shaolin. The third of the 1980s Shaolin series, the only one to have a director from Hong Kong, and a great chance for me to talk about all the location shooting at the real-life Shaolin Temple, as well as the career of Jet Li, and the transformations of Chinese film-making as China opened up to foreign productions.
Return of the Street Fighter. Someone read my obituary of Sonny Chiba and decided I would be a good fit for talking about the middle film of his Street Fighter trilogy, with time out for his film career placed in context with his TV work on Key Hunter, the writing careers of bit-part supporting cast members, and the difference between karate and kempo.
I really must get around to replacing my broken Spriggan DVD.
Commentaries can be interesting things, providing insight in to productions – especially good if there’s nothing else on the disc. I listen to less than I used to though due to encountering a lot of bad ones with people talking about nothing in particular.
I had that Usual Suspects video too. It was called ‘The Definitive guide to the Usual Suspects’ and came in a slip case with a regular version of the film alongside it.
How bizarre – I recently had another flick through SMC and was thinking just last night I should make a list of all Clementaries and see which ones I was missing. I actually only have about half of them, and I seem to recall buying Spriggan twice since the Clementary was only included on a special edition release (although I’ll admit that it being marked down to a fiver helped).
Have you ever published any of the Spirited Away material? Seems a shame to let all that work go to waste.
I did mention a couple of factoids from it to Andrew Osmond, who alluded to them in his BFI Modern Classic book on Spirited Away. I also recycled a section of it as part of a lecture on translating anime at the University of Joensuu in Finland a couple of years ago, which will appear in transcript form in SMC 2 should that book ever happen.
Apart from that, they are sitting on my hard drive and waiting for the day when they might come in handy. Considering Spirited Away’s importance to the anime canon, I am sure the chance will eventually arise.
There I am, reading this while eating lunch at the end of a pretty rubbish working week, and you say the Spriggan commentary was your favourite. Made me smile, made me happy, thank you – producing that was one of my best professional memories.
Then I read the Casshan paragraph… I had forgotten that! Your own fault, you know full well too much chilli just after you come back from the land of the Finns is not always a good idea! Oh wait – that might have been the point WHEN you realised…
Even in the midst of his ongoing troubles, M Night Shyamalan had something interesting to say in the Lady in the Water, about the nature of creativity and relevance of audience, and how it only takes one viewer to love something for it to be worthwhile.
Which we might parse as something along the lines of, if a DVD commentary happens in the forest and nobody is listening, does it make any sound? All art is like this, of course, but on commentaries you do sometimes send the discs off into the world and wonder if anyone even notices what’s there. But what I love about them is the permanence. It might be ten years before someone in academia feels like writing it up, but on the day they start, Spriggan has two commentary tracks, amounting to three or four hours of solid data, or roughly 40,000 words — half a novel’s worth of information. In English. Just waiting there, ready to be quoted and debated.
I do feel that a good anime commentary (i.e. not 90 minutes’ noise from self-regarding voice actors) doubles the effective running time and genuinely is worth the effort. And I’m not just saying that because I get paid for it.
Very interested to see Shiroi Hane on this thread wondering how many Clementaries there are and discovering there are several for him yet to buy. Such comments make this blog worth doing.
As I’ve noted before, your commentary is what keeps the UK edition of Detonator Orgun on my dvd shelf, whilst also prompting me to go import the US edition (I’m a sucker for Norio Wakamoto and Hiroko kasahara).
And I’ll certainly be digging out my copy of Spriggan to give it a re-watch… not sure how I missed your commentary the first time around.
Sadly it’s because of those commentaries by such VA’s that I usually skip them. There’s only so much self proclamation I’m willing to listen to until it becomes irritating noise. Though your commentary would be well worth it, it’s a shame that your’s isn’t highlighted in the Extra’s listing as such. I’m sorry.
Could you just confirm something for me, JC. Did you translate the Appleseed as well, or did you just do the commentary track on it?
No, I just did the commentary track. I had nothing to do with the translation of Appleseed. “Half cyborg? He’s ALL bastard!”
When you mentioned Appleseed I assumed it was the 2004 film, probably because Vexille is in the list. I own, but haven’t watched the 1989 one yet as a friend said it was a little hard to understand, which considering he’s never read the manga is understandable.
I was a little worried I might not be able to obtain a copy of Spriggan as it sounds like the most involving of your Clementaries? but I was thankfully able to secure a second hand copy for £8 from CEX website (thought i’d mention that if anyone else is trying to find a copy) and as an added bonus it had the OST CD which is often rare for second hand stuff.
The best DVD commentaries I have ever heard are by a man called Bey Logan who really infuses his tracks with passion, facts and appreciation of the artistry and history of his subject – kung fu films. My appreciation of Hong Kong films and Chinese martial arts is due in large part to him and I have purposely bought films I’m not particularly interested in just because there’s a Bey Logan commentary track on it.
He worked primarily on the UK line ‘Hong Kong Legends’ which were added-value editions of (mainly) HK martial arts films. Anyone who is thinking of doing a commentary should check him out, even if they have no interest in HK film.
In the track for ‘Once Upon a Time in China’ there was a bizarre, slightly awkward but mainly amusing conversation/commentary between Logan and an American who had appeared in the film and thought all HK films were total junk. And Logan managed to win him round to appreciating the film during the course of the commentary!
Sorry to sound like a rabid fanboy but, like JC, Logan is one of my minor heroes.
“Half cyborg? He’s ALL bastard!” – Love it.
Just like the Guyver: ‘You think you can defeat me, Melmot?…. YOU.. SHIT.’
Bey Logan’s commentaries are great. Other favourites of mine include the one to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, in which James Schamus and Ang Lee relentlessly take the piss out of their own film; Christopher McQuarrie on the miseries of making Way of the Gun, and the members of Spinal Tap, in character, on the commentary track to the film that bears their name. Oh, and the Usual Suspects: “THAT’S MY MUM! THAT’S MY MUM!”
The Brian Blessed commentary to Flash Gordon is also strangely endearing. “It’s the hands you see! Watch the hands! I told him ACT WITH YOUR HANDS!” As is Rob Reiner’s commentary for When Harry Met Sally, when he reminisces about meeting his wife-to-be on set.
Less impressed with the commentary tracks that involve clueless actors saying “Look at my hat” or musing witlessly about what things onscreen *might* mean, if only there were someone around who could tell them. Not all actors, of course, just a depressingly large number of them.
I have a strange soft spot for Brian Blessed (and I still say that someone, somehow, should arrange a dub for Sol Bianca that features him as the bald guy in the second OVA) so I might have to track that down some time.
I think one of my favourite commentaries is still the one on End of Evangelion – at least, it is one of the few I have ever listened to more than once (the others being Vexille and Appleseed I believe).
One of the worst was a D.N.Angel commentary with a couple of ADV’s male VAs sounding lost and uncomfortable together. Tip: if you’re going to do a VA commentary, include at least one female – preferably someone bouncy like Monica Rial. Like the one for Puni Puni Poemy which, not being a fan of Excel Saga, I got purely because of what I’d heard about the commentary track :p
I read this thinking it seemed very familiar and then the comments scrolled into sight… I still haven’t got around to tracking down that Flash Gordon commentary.
On a completely unrelated note, I saw this book and thought of you:
Yes, this is a ten-year-old piece that I have updated with the new commentary. And that book has gone straight in the shopping basket!