The upcoming format war between Blu-ray and HD DVD promises to be quite a battle. At this stage, it’s really difficult to predict how the thing will play out – and the rewards for the winner are enormous. It should certainly be more entertaining than the more recent spat between DVD Audio and Super Audio CD (ultimately no one cared what happened) and the squabble between rival DVD recording formats.
But somehow I doubt it’ll be as much fun as the legendary clash between VHS and Betamax. Now that was a war!
For me, there’s little doubt that the glory years of home video were the early eighties, when VHS and Betamax slugged it out on a worldwide stage. In today’s digital era, pretty much anything is possible, but back then every little advance was hard fought for. It was front page news when someone invented noise-free picture search!
In that analogue era, VCRs stood as amazing examples of mechanical engineering; stunningly complex, but often amazingly reliant.
The father of home video was Shizuo Takano, who became known affectionately as Mr VHS by his colleagues at Victor Company of Japan (aka JVC). It was he and a small team that developed VHS, as a rival to Sony’s Betamax system. Takano was a section chief of an out-of-favour group of employees at JVC. He was 47 at the time and knew his particular Section was for the chop. The company’s first industrial-style VCR was a commercial disaster and the company was in poor shape. Lay-offs were imminent. So Takano hand-picked a group of engineers and secretly began working on a domestic video recorder to rival Sony’s. VHS came to market a year after Betamax, but at Takano’s urging Victor Company licensed the system to Sony’s rivals, and consumer electronics history was made. It became the dominant worldwide video format, saving his company in the process.
Back when all this was happening, I was the Editor of What Video magazine and met with Takano in Japan. He was quiet, polite and rather humble. Frustratingly for me, he said little about his battles with Sony. But, as is the Japanese way, our formal meeting concluded with a traditional Japanese meal which stretched into the evening. At this point Takano san became rather more relaxed. He enjoyed his beer, and the more he drank the more animated and lucid he became. He brought me closer to the people and personalities that forged the home video era, than any other person I’ve met since.
Takano passed away in 1992, aged 67. He left behind a remarkable legacy. For those interested in this particular slice of CE history, a movie based on his life and the development of VHS, is available on Japanese DVD (Region 2, NTSC). It’s called, The Sun will rise again, and while in Japanese it does have English Language subtitles. I suspect enthusiasts will find it worth the trouble of hunting a copy down. Alternatively wait for it to come out on HD DVD…or will it be Blu-ray? By Steve May