Taking a step back from the unsurprisingly controversial sentiment of the previous article, here’s something everyone can enjoy!
That’s a lie, but it is something that I doubt anyone will feel very strongly about (famous last words) although I am hoping that someone with a bit more expertise on the subject will be kind enough to chime in. Also, taking an unexpected foray into the realm of the 3D today, but bear with me. At least this one has pictures.
I was in the process of calibrating my fancy new TV (Samsung LN46A650 if any of you were curious, or even if you weren’t, I’ll take this opportunity to be a little shameless) and as I was trying to optimize my picture settings for all possibly scenarios, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a phenomenon that’s been in the back of my mind for some time. Specifically, why is it that movies from This Country look one way, while movies from the Other Country look completely different?
I’m not talking about visual motifs or themes, or directorial styles, here. I’m speaking to a more basic level of a movie, the actual colors, the sharpness and contrast. Sure, no two movies have quite the same “look”, which is why setting up a shiny new TV is more art than science, but I reckon that a great many Japanese movies have such a distinctive look that a skilled viewer could be able to identify them as being from Japan simply by looking at any arbitrary shot or frame, devoid of context. Within my experience, this is not nearly as true for the films of any other country in the world. This strange quality, unique among all types of film, I would call “The Toei Color”. So named because although it does not appear to be unique to the films of Toei, it’s certainly as visible there as it is anywhere. And those bastards make some damn good movies.
Now, I suspect that some of you already know what I’m talking about, but for everyone else, just what is the Toei Color? Well, honestly it’s a kind of grainy yellow-green. Marked by low contrast and pale, yellowed colors. It’s the sort of thing that’s a lot easier to show than to describe, so here:
Screen caps courtesy of Shion Sono’s wackadoo horror film Exte. Have a quick look. Notice how grainy everything looks (which is paradoxically both more visible and less noticeable seeing in in motion) but more importantly notice how peculiar the colors are. The whites are not really whites, they’re off-whites tending toward green/yellow. Reds and blues are muted and tinted in a strange fashion. If you look at it for too long, it begins to look normal, so as a comparison, look at this:
Here we have the same shot after it has been manually (and crudely) color shifted to a more “natural” pallette. Notice that some of the whites actually resemble the color white. Notice how the blue tabletop and fan blades actually look blue instead of some bizarre jaundice color not found in nature. In contrast, the Toei Color comes into sharp relief. One of these pictures looks like an Other Country movie, the other one does not.
This begs the question, where does the Toei Color come from? Is this an artifact of some odd lighting rig that has become standard in Other Country films but never quite caught on elsewhere? Could it be that the film stock that is being used is somehow chemically or compositionally different from the film used elsewhere, resulting in a different “look”? Or are these shots just accurately representing objects that actually are these unexpected colors, for reasons unknown?
Ok, that last one is a bit unlikely, but we’re being scientific here. As this is something that has played on my mind for some time, the up until the very first time I personally set foot in Tokyo, there remained a nagging suspicion that something about the air or light in the Other Country simply turned everything yellow, and for some reason no one ever talked about it. I can now vouch that this is, most definitely, not the case. Kind of like the old joke about the virgin otaku who finally gets to see a real-life naked 3D woman and is shocked that her private bits are not covered by a mosaic.
But don’t take my word for it. In the interests of science, we need to come up with real evidence that these images are not accurately representing their subjects. As a start, we can perform a side by side comparison of images consiting of the same object which has been filmed both with the Toei Color and without.
For example, Chiaki Kuriyama.
Here we see Ms. Kuriyama as she appears in Kill Bill, circa 2003. Despite Tarantino’s efforts at accuracy and general attention to detail, no Toei Color.
Here, again from Exte, we see Ms. Kuriyama as she appears with the Toei Color.
Now, I’ll be blunt. What the fuck happened here? Now, granted these were filmed years appart, in different places and under different lighting and makeup requirements, but seriously. What happened? These two pictures look absolutely nothing alike. Clearly something is wrong here. Of course, I have (sadly) never met Chiaki Kuriyama but I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that she probably looks a lot more like the first screen cap than the second. This is fairly compelling evidence that the Toei Color is introduced somewhere in either the lighting or filming stages.
To narrow it down further, let’s remove a couple more variables. Next we have a shot from the helpful making-of documentary for Exte, which I am reasonably sure was shot on video. Video, by its very nature, has a radically different “look” compared to film, due to differences in framerate and gamma amongst other things. Have a lookat the floor in this image:
And now, the very same floor viewed again through the magic of Toei Color.
Not the same scene, alas, but clearly the same set. Looking at that floor, it’s pretty obvious that whatever is going in has nothing to do with lights or makeup. It’s the film. Something was done to that poor floor that robbed it of all its real colors, leaving it to look as though it’s being viewed through day-old dishwater.
Sadly, this is about as far as I can take this analysis. Although I pride myself on knowing a thing or two about video, that begins and ends at the consumer end of the spectrum. Actual, professional cinematography is a complete mystery to me. If anyone out there has any idea what could be causing this phenomenon, and furthermore why it only seems to affect movies from the Other Country. Any insight would be greatly appreciated.
As much as this effect does seem to change the picture for the worse, I am loathe to consider it an out and out flaw, and it would be a sad day indeed if it were ever “fixed”. The Toei Color is an integral part of these films, every bit as much as practical FX are an integral part of the tokusatsu experience. I don’t want it to go away, I just want to understand why.