Blu Notes: VIRUS「復活の日」⋅ 4K UHD + Restored Blu-ray ⋅ 2017 ⋅ Kadokawa

Blu Notes: VIRUS「復活の日」⋅ 4K UHD + Restored Blu-ray ⋅ 2017 ⋅ Kadokawa

Were someone to ask me for a capsule opinion of Kadokawa’s recent reissue of the 1980 epic Virus, they’d get a lengthy pause, a sigh, and ultimately a grudging, “It’s complicated.” So settle in, kids. This is apt to be a little more involved than normal.

Director Kinji FUKASAKU’s hyperbolic doomsday picture, adapted with histrionic abandon from Sakyo KOMATSU’s marginally more restrained ’60s novel, placed all the wrong bets back when it was originally produced. Producer Haruki KADOKAWA was banking on an expansive internationally recognizable cast and bigger-than-big production value to pack in the viewers worldwide, either unaware or unconcerned by waning interest in star-studded disaster operas in the wake of Irwin Allen’s box office bombs Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and The SwarmVirus‘ extravagant production (rented nuclear submarine and all) saw it lost in location shoots for so long that it lapped its intended New Years’ release date by a full six months, with its expenses rising in kind. When all was said and done the picture had racked up a bill allegedly in excess of three billion yen, more than it could ever hope to recoup in a domestic release. Still, Virus performed well, grossing a mammoth two and a half billion yen in Japan, and in the decades since has come to be seen as something of a landmark achievement, if not a classic outright.

Virus landed in theaters just as the video rental market was on the cusp of exploding, and has been a staple of Kadokawa Co’s home video catalog ever since, a recipient to as many reissues as any of Hollywood’s anniversary-addicted classics. The most recent iteration, released the 29th of December 2017 (a week delayed from its originally scheduled street date, which seems appropriate given the film’s history), is something of a milestone for Kadokawa – it’s the company’s first ever 4k UHD release.

Kadokawa released a series of budget-friendly Blu-ray discs half a decade ago, most of which appear to have been sourced from interlaced broadcast-ready HD masters from years earlier. In more recent years the company has taken to restoring its catalog in 4k for DCP presentation as well as remastered Blu-ray release, and though the pace of this effort has been slow the results have been excellent overall. Having seen what I have of these restorations (namely the recent remastered Blu-ray reissues for the Heisei Gamera films) my expectations were high for Virus in UHD, but… sigh… it’s complicated.

It’s worth noting that the initial Blu-ray of Virus was fine, but far from stellar. The clunky image improved upon past iterations well enough, but was also presented in 1080i, prone to encode faults, and featured hard-coded Japanese subtitles for all of the non-Japanese language material (in other words, for the greater part of a near three-hour film). This new dual-format package deftly addresses most of these problems, presenting Virus in either 2160p (for the included UHD Blu-ray disc) or 1080p (for the included standard Blu-ray disc) with optional Japanese subtitles and significantly less clunk all around.

The latter is particularly true of the standard Blu-ray disc, which feels precisely as it should – like a better version of what had been seen before. The 1080p presentation is rich with grain texture and smooth in motion, with detail that resolves well beyond what the older 1080i presentation had been capable of. Color can trend a little heavily towards green, but retains plenty of pop, with rich reds, oranges, and blues and appropriately realized flesh tones. Contrast is punchy without feeling overzealous, and the many (many!) low-lit interiors fare far better than on past editions. Damage is evident in the form of frame-specific white and black specks, but little else. Given Kadokawa’s limited resources and Virus‘ own age (nearly 40 years) this all seems perfectly acceptable. The 156 minute feature is still doubtless a devil for encoding staff, but the Mpeg-4 AVC presentation rarely gives up the ghost. Minor frame-specific errors can be found on close examination, but I found nothing of distraction in-motion. Audio more or less matches the 2012 disc, which is fine – the sound was arguably its strongest asset. Virus can be heard in either the original 2.0 stereo (linear PCM) or remixed 5.1 (DTS-HD MA), with optional Japanese subtitles.

By my estimation the 4k remastered standard Blu-ray of Virus is a win, even as its extras are limited to a previously-released commentary track (featuring late director Fukasaku and a variety of other film staff) from the old 2-disc DTS Premium Box DVD release and a selection of trailers for the film sourced from well-aged SD sources. The standard Blu-ray is a solid disc, precisely the sort of presentation that should be expected for catalog titles in this day and age, and well worth the upgrade if you happen to be a fan of the film.

So what, then, of the 4k UHD presentation? Well… sigh… it’s complicated.

By comparison to the standard Blu-ray presentation, it’s impossible to see the 4k UHD of Virus as anything other than a significant disappointment, if not a failure outright. Indeed, that these two discs were even mastered from the same 4k restoration seems shocking considering the vast discrepancy between them. On the positive side of things, detail sees a bit of an uptick in the UHD presentation, most notably in clothing textures, which are often better resolved. That, unfortunately, appears to be the end of the positive side of things.

In other regards Virus is woefully underwhelming in its UHD presentation. While clothing textures and occasionally the close-up details of faces and other objects tighten in 4k, the film grain itself has been digitally minimized and often obliterated all together, frequently lending an unnatural waxiness to the image and often leaving the film feeling smudgier in motion than in its remastered standard Blu-ray edition. In this regard action cuts and location exteriors, two of the film’s greatest strengths, fare the worst. Worse yet are the color and contrast, neither of which are effectively realized in the least in the UHD. Though presented with HDR (BT.2020) Virus proves to be a discouragingly flat affair, with dull color, improbably dim highlights, and black levels that never reach. While mid-range aspects are brighter overall, which might have improved things for a few of the darker interiors, the image has been too throttled at either end to consider it a benefit. Virus looks crushed from both extremes, pallid and sanitized, with flat peachy flesh tones and none of the nuance the format excels at. It’s difficult to believe that such an oppressively grey, lifeless image ever saw manufacturing approval, and harder still to understand how it came to appear that way at all when the same restoration had provided so much better results on another disc from the same company in the same package. The mind boggles, and the Virus 4k UHD goes down in the books as three layers of pure HEVC-encoded sadness.

For the detail-minded, the UHD disc more or less matches the standard Blu-ray for audio and subtitles, with the exception of a technical bump for both the remixed 5.1 audio and commentary track to linear PCM. The disc boasts the same set of trailers as extras, but newly transfers all four at 2160p/24hz with HDR support and linear PCM audio. None have been processed in the same manner as the feature presentation and, despite being comprised almost entirely of optically printed footage, with regard to grain, color, and contrast, all play better than the film itself. This just leaves me more confused than I was in the first place, and puts me in the preposterous position of keeping a standard Blu-ray for its feature presentation and a UHD disc for its trailers.

In the end I have no idea how to approach recommending this release, which presents with some of the best and worst aspects the included formats are capable of. The remastered standard Blu-ray remains a viable upgrade, and the best home video presentation Virus has had to date, so those itching to replace their DVD or 2012 Blu-ray edition are encouraged to indulge. Those with a curiosity for 4k should look elsewhere, or perhaps just pop in the standard Blu-ray and pretend. It’ll just be better that way. Here’s hoping that the state of Virus in UHD proves to be more a curiosity than a trend, as Kadokawa have a lot of films we’d love to see on the format.

A note on this review, and Blu Notes articles to come: While in the past I have been enthusiastic about including screenshots for any video reviews, and still find them as useful and instructive as I ever have, at present I can neither take nor provide them. My wife and I moved aboard a boat in the Spring of 2016, and the dedicated review tech I had at the time (a behemoth of a PC which I still miss dearly) was disposed of out of considerations for space. There should be plenty of reputable sources for screenshots for most of the discs to be reviewed on these pages, but for the rest, and in advance, my apologies.