Tuesday, July 5, 2011

K-On! Blu-Ray US vs. JP review and comparison (vol 1)

It’s been a year now since Bandai Entertainment announced their acquisition of the US license for K-On!, and this spring they finally got around to releasing the first volume on DVD and Blu-Ray disc. That was two and a half months ago, and volume 2 is released today. So, have the American edition of K-On! been worth the wait? I’m going to address that question by doing a comparison between Bandai’s release and its Japanese equivalents.
First off, here’s a look at the first Japanese Blu-Ray volume, containing the first two episodes.

I’ll say this up front: This thing doesn’t come cheap. List price is a whopping 7980 yen (about 98 USD with today’s exchange rate), and that’s just for the first volume. The entire first season consists of 7 volumes in total, so anyone considering this version should be aware that their wallet will hate them for it for a long time.
As seen in the picture above, the Japanese Blu-Ray case for K-On! is actually pink rather than the standard blue. It’s something I could do without, personally (Pink?! Why a pink case, of all things? It’s not a Pink-Ray disc!) but a lot of people seem to like it. The pink is actually semi-transparent so when the case is opened, you can see the print on the backside of the cover inlay, which features a series of drawings of Yui.
First thing you’ll notice when opening it, though, is that it contains some other stuff besides just the Blu-Ray disc. There’s what appears to be a card meant to be mailed in for, I believe, some sort of contest, but the actual extras here are the four-page pamphlet with character bio and facts about Yui, a guitar pick (because naturally, anyone who’s a fan of K-On! plays guitar) with the K-On! logo on one side and a picture of Yui on the other, an “un-tan” sticker (…yeah.) a Yui paper doll (well, it would be a paper doll if you actually cut it out) and a miniature print of two (one on each side) of the posters Mio, Mugi and Ritsu made to advertise the Light Music Club in the first episode.
The surface of the disc itself features a fun image of Yui nom nom nom’ing on a snack.
When you start up the disc, the first thing you get is a series of company logos that last for about a minute combined. Unfortunately, these are not skippable so you have to sit through them each time you play the disc, unless your player resumes from where you stopped on your last watch. This would be my one real issue with the Japanese discs, but to be fair it’s not much more than a minor annoyance.
After the logos, you are taken straight into the show and the two episodes play continuously one after the other. You are not presented with any menus prior to watching, though you can of course access them at any time.
The audio and video quality is as good as K-On! will ever get. The picture is absolutely flawless from what I can tell, sharp and vibrant. Audio is presented in lossless and uncompressed LPCM stereo.
The menus are presented over a simple background still image. Tasteful, but perhaps a little boring. A piece of music from the OST plays over the main menu, specifically the “Have some Tea?” track which is easily identified as the music that plays during the “Next Episode” previews. Menu choices include episode/chapter selection, subtitle options (Japanese on/off only), audio options (episode audio, cast or staff commentary) and video extras.
The two audio commentary tracks are both presented in PCM 2.0, just as the episodes themselves. The cast commentary features the cast members for the four original K-On! girls, and the staff commentary various members of the production staff (as one might guess). In later volumes, the cast commentaries usually feature the same people (with the notable addition of Ayana Taketatsu later on, after her character is introduced) while participants in the staff commentaries vary from volume to volume.
Video extras for this volume include an interview with the voice of Yui; Aki Toyosaki, and the first Uraon! episode.
The interview runs for 17 minutes and, I’m sure, would be very interesting and/or entertaining if one understood Japanese.
The other video extra is the first episode of Uraon!, a series of short and crudely drawn “mini-episodes” featuring the K-On! gang in brief and sometimes weird gags. This first episode is called “Yui’s Curiousity” and features three vignettes with Yui wondering about various random aspects of her fellow Light Music Club members.
That is pretty much it for volume 1, but since the US volume 1 contains twice the amount of episodes compared to the Japanese one (a whopping four vs. a measly two), the contents of volume 2 need to be taken into account as well before we move on to the US version. After all, US Vol.1 = JP Vols. 1 + 2.
Where the first volume was Yui-themed, volume 2 is Ritsu-themed. The inside of the cover features drawings of Ritsu the same way the first cover had drawings of Yui. Inside is another character bio; about Ritsu this time, a Ritsu paper doll and another guitar pick with the K-On! logo on one side and Ritsu’s face on the other. Furthermore, there’s a “Moemoe Kyun” sticker for you to place on your briefcase and confuse the hell out of your co-workers with, and the last of the three posters the girls made in the first episode. Printed on the backside is Yui’s club application form.
The disc art continues the “stuff your face with disc-shaped snacks” theme from volume 1, but with Ritsu (who else?) getting to be the lucky club member having a happy foodful time on volume 2.
The content on the disc is presented the same way as before. Forced company logos, static menu (different background picture, same music), excellent audio/video, two audio commentaries. Episodes numbers three and four are included on the disc. The Uraon! short this time is called “Ricchan’s Kodak Moment Series” (that’s what the fansub I’ve seen calls it, anyway) and takes place during the group’s training camp in episode 4. The “plot” involves Ritsu taking embarrassing photos of the other members and getting herself murdered for her troubles.
(Naked Yui FTW?)
With that out of the way, let’s have a look at the North American version of K-On!. First of all; the picture on the cover of the first volume is the same as that of the first Japanese volume. The Blu-Ray case, however, is a standard blue one which is fine with me but disappointing for some.
With the US version, however, there are no physical extras whatsoever, not even the oh-so-common printed promo material for other Blu-Ray releases. The only thing inside the cover is the Blu-Ray disc itself (unless you count that alarm thingy, I suppose). The label doesn’t follow the character theme of the Japanese discs, but instead shows artwork of Yui’s guitar.
On this version, you are forced to sit through a generic anti-piracy warning and the Bandai logo before proceeding. Unlike the Japanese version, the disc then takes you to the main menu (Fair warning: When playing the disc on a PC, mouse control is not supported) which is quite unlike its Japanese equivalent. It’s an actual animated menu, showing clips from the four episodes contained on the disc, set to a piece of music (which is the same one as on the Japanese menus).
The episodes themselves hold very good video quality. Personally, I can’t see a difference between these and the Japanese versions (aside from the fact that the credits have been re-done in English). That’s not to say there isn’t any difference in quality, I’m just saying I’m not seeing it on my 46” screen.
On the audio side, however, the US version is lacking. The best Bandai has seen fit to present us with is a lossy Dolby Digital soundtrack (well, two to be precise) encoded at 192 Kbps. The bigger issue, however, is the… (shudder) …music replacement.
Remember this scene? In the first episode, as Yui is contemplating joining the Light Music Club, the three existing members decide to perform for her in an attempt to recruit her. In a classic K-On! moment, they play an instrumental version of Tsubasa wo Kudasai only to have Yui inform them they’re not actually good.
Well, in the original version, they did, anyway. In the North American edition, the song has been replaced – and this is true both for the Japanese language audio track as well as the English dub included on the disc – by another song, specifically Aura Lee (perhaps better known is Elvis Presley’s version; Love Me Tender). Why was this done? Don’t know. No one from Bandai has commented, or even acknowledged the alteration.
Personally, I’m pretty pissed about this. The lack of lossless audio on the Blu-Ray is unfortunate, but something I can live with. The fact that none of the extras from the Japanese version made it to the US (yeah, they’re not on here. No Uraon! for American K-On! fans.) is disappointing. But to actually replace a musical number performed in the anime? Unacceptable.
But the US edition still has a couple of advantages over the Japanese version. Arguably most important is the fact that the Japanese discs feature no translation of any kind, it’s in Japanese only – whereas the US version features not only English subtitles but an English dub as well, for the reading impaired. Secondly is the fact that the Japanese version is hellishly expensive by comparison. The first two volumes combined would cost close to $200, and that’s just four episodes – the same four episodes contained on the first US volume (though not in their original, unmolested state), which sells for a mere $34.98 (list price).
As far as extras go, the US edition has nothing except a ten minute interview with Stephanie Sheh, the voice of Yui in the English dub. I suppose that may be of interest if you’re a dub fan. I am not. There are a few trailers for other anime titles listed as “extras”, but frankly, they just don’t count.
If there is any conclusion to be had here, it’s that the Japanese editions are perfect for collectors who don’t mind spending a bit of cash and don’t mind the lack of an English (or any) translation. With superb audio and video quality, they are the perfect presentation of the episodes, and it doesn’t hurt that it comes with a pile of fun little physical extras, useless though they might be. On top of that, you get two audio commentaries per episode, one Uraon! episode on each disc and the Aki Toyosaki interview.
If you’re a regular ol’ fan who doesn’t want to bleed your wallet dry and/or are dependent on an English translation, the US version will probably have to do. What it lacks in presentation of the material (and it lacks a lot) it makes up for in being the only viable choice for most people. Bottom line – if you can stomach the horrible music replacement in episode 1, you should be fine.


  1. Apparently the music replacement was due to licensing issues. It's disappointing, but not too big of an issue.

  2. Ah. Has that been confirmed, though? I haven't been able to find any solid info about this...