We all have our guilty pleasures. I saw "Gunhed" back in 1989 when it opened in Okinawa City, Okinawa. I had seen a huge write-up in NEWTYPE magazine and having been a fan of Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot since childhood, I just had to see this "giant robot" movie. Some buddies and I went on a quest to find it, and I was thrilled that we made the effort. I've seen the Japanese version of Gunhed numerous times, and I have to admit that I still don't understand the logic of Kyron's scheme to take over the world. I don't get why Seven's mouth glows, or why she needs to stand over the vial of Texmexium when the clock runs out. But that's okay. Gunhed satisfied my urge to see a kick-butt big robot movie. That half the dialogue was in English with Japanese "side-titles" was a bonus.
ADV Films' Gunhed DVD (2004 release) was something I'd anticipated for, literally, years. And although I was disappointed about the initial information I'd managed to glean about the DVD (full frame, English dub), I was nevertheless encouraged because I was really impressed with how well ADV did with--and how much work they put into--the new Gamera Trilogy. But from the very first seconds of the DVD, I knew something had gone terribly wrong.
The source print is terrible; the picture is too bright and the colors are desaturated. The transfer is blurry, as if you're watching through a dirty window. (My 20-year-old VHS copy of the original Japanese laserdisc far surpasses this DVD.) The title credits are jumpy and smeared. Also, the name "Alan Smithee" has obviously been superimposed over director Masato Harada's name. Similarly, the original Japanese "side-titles" are covered up as they appear, leading to some off colors and weird split images. I suppose you could call it widescreen, but just on a technicality. (The non-anamorphic picture stretches to fill my HDTV screen, simultaneously squishing the picture. Using the 4:3 format fixes the aspect ratio but puts the picture in a smaller box in the middle of the screen.) I suspect that the source print was a version made for theatrical distribution outside Japan (the credit for Randy Reyes ["Landy Leyes"] credit lends credence to this theory)--excusing ADV somewhat, but not acquitting them entirely.
The English dub is the same stomach-churning abomination, done by a bunch of ex-Shaw Brothers hacks, used in ADV's 1997 VHS version. (I'm sure the voiceover artists are wonderful people, but the new character voices are uniformly careless. Only Brenda Bakke retained her own voice, which makes me wonder why no other English-speaking characters did.)
About the only good things I have to say about the DVD are that 1) it hasn't been edited down; it's the same version as on the LD; and 2) it contains the original Japanese audio track and English subtitles, so I finally know what the Japanese-speaking characters are saying--assuming the translation is accurate, of course. That actually added a lot of enjoyment for me: It fleshed out the story, explained a few things and made for a greater appreciation of the characters. (Sure, I have the manga, but any similarity between the two, in my opinion, is purely coincidental.)
So why would an otherwise reputable company put out a product that's so shockingly bad? I can only assume that ADV got the import rights cheap and then, figuring they wouldn't make much money on DVD sales, cranked out a quickie transfer and some discs as cheaply as possible--a self-fulfilling prophecy if I've ever seen one. But if they already had the print in-hand from having done the VHS version, then why wait so long to put out the DVD?
Too bad, ADV. I expected so much more. The best version I've found on DVD is a Japanese Region 2 import from DVD Toho. No English subs, though.
*A note on the 2008 release. I must be a glutton for punishment, but I bought this version hoping for some improvement over the 2004 release. No such luck. This one got a new cover but otherwise the content is the same.