Urusei Yatsura: Remember My Subs

On July 30th 2022, I found myself sitting amongst an enthusiastic crowd for Discotek Media‘s Otakon Panel. The boutique distributor’s announcements excited people from every corner of the room. However, as the panel continued, an Otakon staffer began to make increasingly hurried gestures at the amount of time they had left. On the verge of being kicked out of the room, Mike Toole decided to let their last surprise speak for itself. The screen then displayed a dark blue background, quickly illuminated by the appearance of a neon star.

Fan reacts to Discotek‘s Urusei Yatsura announcement at Otakon 2022

The panel room exploded in applause, retro anime enthusiasts instantly knowing this meant that the Urusei Yatsura television series was finally returning to North American home video. I was excited myself, but the excitement was soon followed by tension. Urusei Yatsura is 195 episodes long, translating into a potential mountain of work for Discotek Media and the crew at MediaOCD, who produces the majority of their releases. A sigh of relief quickly washed over me as Brady Hartel hurriedly explained that AnimEigo‘s Robert J. Woodhead had done some technical wizardry to help them out, enabling the Discotek crew to use AnimEigo‘s English subtitle scripts from their well-regarded releases of the series.

In the days following the announcement of the release, MediaOCD subtitle editor Logan Rebholz, exchanged some tweets with Woodhead on a few of the quirks he was encountering while working on the series. Greatly piquing my interest, I soon found myself learning more and more about the nearly 30-year living history of Urusei Yatsura‘s English subtitles. To piece this anime classic’s star-shaped puzzle together, I spoke with Robert J. Woodhead, Logan Rebholz, and Justin Sevakis.

AnimEigo & Robert J. Woodhead‘s relationship with Urusei Yatsura began back in 1992, when his company acquired the license for the TV series and most of its movies from a company called Compass. AnimEigo had been gaining steam with the connections they had been building following their first release, Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01 in 1990—which, surprisingly, could have been Project A-ko. Humorously, Woodhead would much later discover the thought-to-be-lost film masters of Project A-ko while in production of MADOX-01‘s Ultra Edition Blu-ray Set, to the great relief of everyone at Discotek Media.

AnimEigo‘s subtitling process was one of the first developed for use in anime. Though it had been iterated on a bit by the time they had started work on Urusei Yatsura, their process seemed to be generally similar to when Woodhead and AnimEigo co-founder Roe Adams III had started playing around with the idea of subtitling anime while developing Wizardry IV—specifically, playing with a Colorspace II video board that allowed Woodhead’s Macintosh II to place graphics over video.

For the full technical nitty-gritty of the process, Woodhead directed me to his write up on the “secret” history of AnimeEigo. To hit on the key points, after some futzing around they had worked out the best way to get the frames moving to change the subtitles in a timely manner. From there they figured out the best colors to display on screen for both readability and technical purposes, giving birth to multi-colored subtitles. With those two foundational elements in place, their last challenge was timing their subtitles to the dialogue. With no standard timecode or timing system in place, AnimEigo set about figuring out their own solutions. Early on, they would make a tape with an on-screen frame count that would let them time out the dialogue while watching it back. From there they would test the sync and make any necessary changes by hand if need be. AnimEigo had a lot of trial and error in the development of their subtitling system, but it evolved over time into an increasingly efficient tool as they gained more experience using it, making the whole process of production fairly routine when they did Urusei Yatsura.

“It was pretty much the same as any other title. Translate, edit, time, make master tape in studio, send off to the duplicator,” Woodhead told me.

AnimEigo’s archived liner notes show that many, many translators worked on the series and its films, with more people working on the project as a whole as the company grew. Woodhead told me it was just himself, his wife Natsumi Ueki, Adams, and a few translators at the start of the project. Their approach to the series as a whole is best said by Woodhead himself:

“Usually the answer is ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ or ‘because it amused us to do it that way.’”

AnimEigo‘s first Urusei Yatsura release, oddly enough, was not actually an AnimEigo release. At the same time Woodhead was in negotiations with Compass for the series, John O’Donnell of Central Park Media signed a deal with TOHO for the rights to Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer. Most likely realizing that there weren’t many people in the niche industry of selling anime in North America, AnimEigo worked with O’Donnell and Central Park Media on their release. They translated and subtitled the film for CPM to maintain continuity with their releases of the series.

CPM‘s release of Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer hit LaserDisc on May 6th, 1993 as the series’ first stateside release. AnimEigo followed that later in the year with their release of the first film, Urusei Yatsura: Only You, on October 20th. From looking at the release calendar, AnimEigo spent 1994 getting the other films out while working on the TV series, hitting LaserDisc the same year. The TV series was released on VHS shortly after in June of 1995. Woodhead told me there wasn’t much of a difference between producing the subtitles for the two different formats, as they most likely used an identical master tape.

On the topic of different formats, the encroaching new millennium brought the advent of DVD along with it. The new format wasn’t a big deal for AnimEigo as Woodhead told me the limitations of the format were very much the same as their original titling system. From March 2001 to June 2006, AnimEigo released the entire series on DVD, wrapping their time working on the series. Their license to Urusei Yatsura later ended in September of 2011.

Though one of the great catalysts in pushing the popularity of Urusei Yatsura, the film Beautiful Dreamer, had a good handful of releases from Central Park Media before and during the heyday of AnimEigo‘s DVD releases. Beautiful Dreamer would enjoy a 1998 DVD release with a later “Collector’s Edition” release in 2004. Surprisingly enough, someone involved in the current history of the series worked on the titles for that last release: former ANN Answerman & CEO of MediaOCD Justin Sevakis.

“Fun story about that: so Brady was having one of his assistants go through the CPM credits and transcribe them all, and they got to my name. giggling They were just like ‘wow, Justin’s been doing this a while’.”

Sevakis further told me that when Discotek Media licensed Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer, its 2018 release was a toe dip for them to see if the series would gain the traction to justify the company to do more.

“We started with the movies just because the movies were easier to deal with. They were all one-offs, we didn’t have to worry about the massive episode count or whatever. And they were pretty—well, the second movie was from a different licensor and we were able to get that first. So we were kind of able to test the waters that way.”

Those waters treated them well enough to get rolling on releases of the other movies, which were all released throughout 2022. For those films, Sevakis enlightened me on the process they generally use to nab those subtitles for those releases and their other projects: using previous DVD releases as a starting point.

“There’s a few apps that were made by, you know, video forums nerds back in 2007 that were specifically for reverse engineering DVDs and putting them, you know, probably for piracy. chuckles But those tools are very useful and what we’re able to do is, we have those [programming] scripts that can OCR [Optical Character Recognition] DVD subtitle graphics. That’s what they are – they’re graphics that are a maximum of three colors and can actually OCR them into a text script. Usually with a few typos here and there. Sometimes it’ll mix up an uppercase I with an lowercase L, cause those look the same in some fonts. And then it’ll just go through the script and spit out a timed subtitle script that doesn’t need that much more work.”

Example of a subtitling program screen for Urusei Yatsura. Editor’s note recommends punching up the script since the character, TEN, is drunk.

When using that approach, additional work mostly includes some line breaks and romanization changes to bring the subtitles up to modern localization standards. Other than that, the process is automated and fairly quick, though some older DVDs present challenges that the MediaOCD team has to hammer away at on occasion.

This workflow is pretty standard for MediaOCD subtitle editor, Logan Rebholz, who joined the company after Beautiful Dreamer’s release. Prior to joining the company, Rebholz was involved with AnimEigo‘s Kickstarter campaigns, initially jumping in later on in the development of Bubblegum Crisis Ultimate Edition Blu-ray Set.

“I got my start before I started working for Justin at MediaOCD. I was volunteering on Robert’s Kickstarters and then he promoted me to doing paid work, so I did a couple of those. I think Riding Bean was the first one that I was effectively a contractor for him and then we did Gunsmith Cats.”

Rebholz told me that he still occasionally helps out in a volunteer capacity when he has the time available. His familiarity with AnimEigo‘s practices would come in handy as Discotek began planning their release of the Urusei Yatsura TV series in 2020. Going into production, Sevakis was hoping that they could potentially use AnimEigo‘s subtitle scripts, as again that would be 195 episodes for them to work through. Their OCR solution to rip the subtitles from the DVDs was on the table. Rebholz told me that would be doable, but make for some complications.

“Had it come down to it, we could have ripped the subs from the original DVDs. And you know, having done that just as an experiment to test stuff, those—one thing I can say is the tricks that Robert used back in the day to get the multi-colored subtitles and what not: very easy to do on Blu-ray, not so easy to do on DVD. Which makes ripping them from the discs much harder. So that’s why I think it was invaluable that we had those original scripts, because while yes, we could have done it, it would have been a lot more work.”

Luckily they didn’t have to worry about getting access to AnimEigo‘s scripts. As Sevakis told me, “We didn’t even have to ask, he [Woodhead] just offered the use of his scripts.”

We then talked a little about the working relationship MediaOCD has with AnimEigo. The company also authors discs for AnimEigo, the retail release of Megazone 23 being a particular point of pride for Sevakis. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in full force across the United States, Sevakis and Rebholz met with Woodhead and Ueki at Anime Los Angeles 2020 to discuss the details a bit further. Rebholz told me a few details about the meeting, which was also his first time meeting Woodhead and Ueki in person after years of working with them.

“So as it happens, Anime Los Angeles; Justin’s based in Los Angeles, and so it worked out really well. He came out, we met up, and we spent an afternoon, but the key thing was we got a chance to sit down and talk to Robert. And obviously, you know, projects like these, especially something big like Urusei Yatsura, we plan this stuff out several years in advance. This was something long in the works and we talked to him about it and he said ‘Well, you know hey, I still got all my scripts’ and I’m in the unique position of having seen his scripting system that he’s been using since basically back in the VHS days. So I was familiar with the formatting and we use Aegisub in our work, commonly used for fansubs, but it’s also got a lot of professional applications. I knew the quirks of that and what to expect with his [system], so we got the opportunity to sit down with him and talk to him and say ‘Hey, the problem is we can use your scripts, but they’re not compatible with our system’ and he goes “I wrote my script, so why don’t I write something for you guys that will convert them over and format it to what you guys use?’ ”

Woodhead told me it was an afternoon’s worth of work to write this conversion app in the Python programming language. This app turned his internal format subtitles into the standard SRT format subtitles that Logan could work with on Aegisub. I asked Woodhead if the strong working relationship between MediaOCD and AnimEigo was a factor in his assistance, but Woodhead, ever the consummate professional, insisted that he did it out of courtesy. He told me that, ultimately, the licensor has the right to use AnimEigo‘s translations and subtitles.

On Rebholz’ end, the conversion only gave him a few resultant quirks to clean up here and there.

“Most of it was pretty straightforward. There were some errant tags (tagged errors in the script) – I’m not sure what they were used for in his scripts – that occasionally kinda got stuck back in the converted scripts, but I’ve been using Aegisub for a very long time and I have a number of little enhancement plugs-ins for it and one of them allows me go through and you know, select what tags I want stripped out of it. Like color overrides or line breaks, things like that.”

The quick cleanup done, Rebholz started making his way through the subtitle scripts. While his goal was to bring up the subtitles to modern standards, he stressed to me that they didn’t want to touch these long-trusted translations too much.

“Most of the time with a lot of our projects, we try not to mess with the translations if we don’t have to. Something like this, you know, there’s been a long history of the fandom knowing these particular subs, we don’t want to mess with certain things, especially if you know, they might have a little bit of flair, but as long as the translation is accurate, we’re usually cool keeping that kind of stuff. Robert was always known for liking to drop pop culture references into stuff. There’s a line in the first set we’re releasing where one of the characters says “live long and prosper.” Well as we were going through and asking for a few little translation checks here and there, I asked about that one and was told “yeah, it’s kind of a loose translation, but it’s not necessarily wrong.” So stuff like that we’ll leave alone because again, you know the fans kind of—if it’s a long-time project or show that’s been around for a long time, there’s a certain expectation of people knowing certain things.”

Generally, if it was in the spirit of the scene, the MediaOCD team was good to continue with the translation. Though sometimes they did have to iterate on it. In a line referencing the strength of the Mendou Family’s Military Force, the original word used to describe in Japanese doesn’t have an easy transition into English. AnimEigo opted to use “Mobile Power” while MediaOCD used “Tactical Power.” Neither solution was the wrong answer, as again, both teams did their best to represent the spirit of the idea being conveyed.

There were a few touch-ups they did here and there to reflect modern awareness of Japanese culture. Japanese cuisine, for instance, has had such a growth in ubiquity since the series’ last home video release that it allowed them to present the food in series with their actual names instead of previously translated solutions. However, for consistency’s sake, Rebholz told me there was one food item they couldn’t change: Gyudon, otherwise known as “beef bowl.”

Some subtitles change, but the beef bowl remains.

“In any project, when we get the first installment, we try and make everything match whatever that is even if that’s not necessarily the first installment in the franchise. If it’s the first one we released, that kind of sets the tone for what we’re gonna do from that point forward. So stuff like beef bowl gets mentioned a lot in the show and we probably would have changed that to gyudon, but because it had stayed as beef bowl in Beautiful Dreamer—we weren’t necessarily locked into it, but it’s just one of those things done for consistency’s sake. We like trying to make a consistent presentation for the viewer if it’s something we’re gonna have most of the franchise or all of the franchise.”

Another modernization that MediaOCD strives for is the absence of Translator’s Notes: on-screen notes that give additional context to what is being discussed on screen. The team kept a few notes, but Rebholz told me that he would often err towards sending them through Quality Control first. That way the MediaOCD team could see if the note was actually needed or if it was just an easy Google search away. For example, Rebholz is pretty confident that most people know what an “oni” is these days without the need for liner or translation notes. Speaking back to the team at MediaOCD and Discotek, he mentioned that Marc Levy, Discotek‘s social media manager and quality control specialist, has a pretty good idea for what kind of notes their audience is looking for. One of the notes they kept, Rebholz explained, was a bit of an explanation for what could be a deep-cut reference for newer anime fans along with reflecting modern awareness.

“Relating to one of the first translator notes in the series, Ataru makes a reference to Iscandar from Space Battleship Yamato. In the original note, it called it Star Blazers since that was obviously more well-known at the time, but these days, Yamato is certainly easily recognized, but Iscandar perhaps not so much, so the note remained in place, but was revised to reference Yamato instead of Star Blazers.”

Circling back around to the tweets Rebholz exchanged with Woodhead, I noticed the strange, moon-like font used for any dialogue spoken by Lum’s mom. A font very distinct from the Greek used for her dialogue in the Urusei Yatsura movies. Rebholz illuminated me to the full context of the tweets that led me to speak with him, one rooted deeply in the origins of AnimEigo‘s subtitling system.

The strange font used for Lum’s mom’s subtitles. AnimeEigo version shown left, Discotek version shown right.

“We got the scripts and the movies were using the Greek—in fact the first movie is the one that I worked on that did have the Greek in it—so we just recreated it and rolled with what was there. When I got to doing the subs for the series…I looked at what was going on because the way the lines were written out in the scripts were a little weird. They didn’t seem to have any spaces or anything in the lines and I was like “Why would these lines be written so awkwardly?”

“So I pulled up the DVD of the appropriate episode and went ‘Okay, I see what’s going on here.’ And then the decision was well, you know, what do we do? Do I recreate these? Do we just pick a different font? Having worked for Robert in the past, I went ‘I know he’s a Mac guy, and has long since been a Mac guy. So I wonder if this was a Mac font that he used.’ I finally found the original font which is conveniently still in Mac OS. So I was able to recreate the text he’d done and in fact we actually added one line, because during QC of that episode it was noted that Lum’s mom had a line that didn’t have any kind of subs.

“And it was really convenient that Robert had replied to my tweets about it saying “we just made up the lines and just tried to make it sound like something that fit the scene,” since I didn’t have to stick to any kind of a script when I added that…I was able to just make up the dialogue for that particular shot and add the missing subtitle. So not only is it a faithful recreation of what he’d originally done, it’s now been expanded with something new.”

Overall, both Rebholz and Sevakis told me that the process working on the Urusei Yatsura TV series has been going pretty smoothly. While the series gets topical on issues relevant to the era it was made every so often, it’s not to the granular degree of a series like the second season of Kodocha. The mention of that series instantly took Rebholz’s breath away, while Sevakis recalled his nickname for the series lead: “Sana-chan, destroyer of translators.” Sevakis continued on to say that it’s been a difficult title for MediaOCD due to its incredibly minute and obscure references to 1990s Japanese variety shows. He breathed a sigh of relief that that was very much not the case with Urusei Yatsura.

“Thank god Urusei Yatsura isn’t that topical.”

Ironically, Urusei Yatsura is, in fact, very topical these days. A new television series from david production is premiering on October 13th and will be streaming via HIDIVE. No one at MediaOCD, Discotek, or Sevakis himself saw it coming when they began work on the now, “original” TV series.

“We weren’t thinking about the TV show at all, that was just dumb luck. It’s kind of funny how often that’s happened. That happened with Shaman King too, where we were about to announce the title and ‘Oh, Japan’s gonna relaunch it,’ and we’re like ‘Oh… cool?’ But you know, in this case we’ll take all we can get cause it’s a great show and a lot of younger fans haven’t even heard of it. So whatever we can do to shine a light on it.”

Talking to Rebholz, you could feel his enthusiasm to be shepherding the series for a new audience, especially with this new series on the way.

“You see it all the time: a reboot or sequel comes out and of course everybody wants to see where it started and what the original was like. The timing again, you know because we started this project so far back, I don’t think any of us had any clue that the new show was in production or coming. So the timing’s really great, and it’s just really cool to be the stewards of the next iteration of releasing this to the anime public at large.”

As for the man there from the beginning, Woodhead, he told me, “I’m happy that more people will get to enjoy UY. It’s a fun show and I enjoyed working on it.”

Something that caught my interest in the whole process is that, despite the large corporate mergers we hear about all the time, anime is really a small industry, stateside especially. It’s an industry where everyone knows everyone to some extent. People who have been in the field since its genesis like Woodhead and folks who have joined as time has gone on like Sevakis and Rebholz. Doting on our respective ages and the ages of his team during our interview, Sevakis told me that this is one of the great things about what they do.

“I feel like once you get the old and the young properly communicating, that’s when cool stuff happens, because we can actually put the pieces of the puzzle together.”

Coop Bicknell is an occasional writer and co-host of podcast Dude, You Remember Macross?. You can follow him @RiderStrike on Twitter.

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