After concentrating mostly on edgy Japanese cinema, ArtsmagicDVD make their first venture into anime serial distribution with Salaryman Kintaro, the main character of which has become one of Japan's most beloved cultural icons. Created by Manga writer Hiroshi Motomiya and first serialized in Young Jump magazine, Kintaro made his first leap onto Japanese airwaves in the form of a live-action drama serial - or J-drama to give them their fan name – way back in 1999. Like the manga, the TV show was a huge hit and after its first twelve episode season and big-screen movie spin-off (directed by none other than Takashi Miike), it has been chugging along nicely with 1-2 year gaps between seasons and season four having ended back in 2004. Most J-drama adaptations of popular Manga series tend to be rather low budget and somewhat watered down then tinkered with to suit the melodramatic conventions of the medium (which are extreme even in comparison to anime), so to convey a more accurate depiction of Motomiya's work an anime series was released in 2001, between seasons two and three of the live-action version. Unfortunately the anime's run was to prove much shorter lived, and the series wound down after one season of twenty episodes were made.
Yajima Kintaro was once the infamous boss of the Hasshu League biker gang, who at their peak boasted more than 10,000 members, but after meeting and falling in love with a partially sighted girl named Akemi, he gradually mellowed and disassociated himself with gang life. Unfortunately their love proved to be short lived when Akemi died in childbirth, but her last wish was that Kintaro would become a salaryman and raise their son, Ryuta in a stable environment. It’s a request Kintaro cannot refuse, and after saving the life of the CEO of Yamamoto Construction he finally gets an opportunity to change his lifestyle once and for all. However, it seems the life of a salaryman is anything but stable when your employers are a multi-million pound constructor whose managing board is made up of corrupt ex-governmental ministers that are busy setting plans in motion to stage a hostile takeover and seize the company for their own nefarious dealings.
Comparisons to GTO are somewhat inevitable when talking about a show like Salaryman Kintaro. Not only did both make the transition from Manga to Jdrama and then finally Anime, but their main characters are also reformed motorcycle gang leaders who are trying to forge a more conventional life in a professional industry. However, whereas GTO is a very straight comedy-drama with a loveable but dim-witted protagonist, Salaryman Kintaro is a much more political affair that clearly has an agenda a mile wide. Its primary function appears to be to serve a life-affirming message for white-collar workers everywhere. The opening sequences of the series is entertainment propaganda at its most obvious, when a couple of thugs pick on a group of Salarymen because of their perception as weak, superior pencil-pushers. The beating is interrupted when Kintaro arrives, with his baby strapped to his back and imparts a beating of his own before exclaiming "Don't mess with Salarymen!"
Kintaro is clearly a role-model for real-life white collar workers, but one that is nauseatingly characterized like some sort of superhero. The basic idea is that, because Kintaro is so honest and direct in his goals, he always achieves them. In one scene on this volume he sits down for a game of Mah-Jong with some co-workers, and while they adopt an unambitious strategy of forming low scoring hands to win each round as fast as possible and accumulate a medium amount of points over a large number of rounds, he sits on rarer tiles and waits, and waits, in the hope that he'll receive just the right sequence of tiles to form one huge scoring hand – and this obviously works. The philosophical statement this scene makes is so heavy handed you pray they won't repeat it again anytime soon, but they do, and no doubt this "aim high and don't waver in your dedication" rhetoric will be rammed down our throats many more times before the season ends.
However, despite Kintaro being disgustingly brilliant at everything he sets out to achieve, the character just about manages to remain appealing because, despite his inherent goodness, he's not quite perfect. There's still a dark edginess simmering under the surface, and it never fails to break through when some punk steps on his toes. When he loses his composure, it's surprising how threatening he can be. There's no molly-coddling over his biker-gang sensibilities here, Kintaro punches, headbutts, and stamps his way through his opponents and comes dangerously close to causing severe damage to people on more than one occasion across these four episodes. This unpredictable aggressiveness imbues a certain air of tension to otherwise contrived scenes, just because you're waiting to see just how this normally self-effacing character will react. Also, the fact that Kintaro is a man who has reformed through tragedy adds an element of pathos to his struggle, his position at Yamamoto is worth fighting for because the cost has been high to get him there in the first place. It’s good old fashioned pantomime sensibilities; you can’t help but cheer him on whenever the bad guys are trying to push him out
Another big plus for Salaryman Kintaro is that character contrivances aside, the political inner workings of Yamamoto Construction are surprisingly complex and involving, with business situations that I'm sure any office worker who watches this series can relate to. The specifics of the internal struggle at Kintaro's company are explained in detail later on in this volume, but the basic gist is that there's a battle for power between the elderly owner and founder, Mr. Yamamoto and the company's successful president, Mr. Oshima. It's the classic conflict between the old-fashioned sensibilities of hard work, honesty and loyalty that Yamamoto believes in and the astute corrupt power gathering of Oshima. You see, Yamamoto might have founded the company but it's Oshima that has made it the huge powerful business it is now, and he did this through his former career as a senior official in the Ministry of Construction. When he requested to join Yamamoto he was accepted because of his promise to bring with him a team of ex-ministers who could provide important ties to the national bank and to exclusive construction contracts within the public sector. This new team instantly changed Yamamoto's fortunes but they also formed an impenetrable clique who is getting more ambitious and more corrupt as time goes by. Little by little they've ousted the Yamamoto's closest supporters on the company's board of executives, and Kintaro joins just as the last of the Yamamoto's senior backers, Mr. Kurokawa, is offering to retire on the grounds of ill-health.
This makes for some intriguing dynamics when Kintaro is brought on board – the old man knows he's going to be usurped by Oshima very soon, and he knows hiring an ex-biker gang member isn't going to do him any favours, but he figures what the hell, the situation can't get any worse. But at first, he's not prepared to consider Kintaro as a proper worker, and he expects him to retire once he gets a taste of how boring the corporate life is compared to his old biker days, and so fobs him off with a pointless position as a pencil-sharpener in the company. Kintaro understands this and treats the position with the same level of respect as he's been given, but a chance encounter with Kurokawa on his day of retirement fires the belly of our hero. Kurokawa is old school, a gruff no-nonsense kinda guy who Kintaro can instantly relate to. He's also the first man in the company to treat Kintaro as a real subordinate within the company – by laying into him for not extending any respect and courtesy to his superiors. Once Kintaro realizes there's at least one man worth working for, he finally has a sense of respect for the company, and his direct, honourable nature starts to inspire those around him, which is pretty much what the first two episodes on this disc are about.
The first episode is just a basic introduction to Kintaro and his bosses at Yamoto Construction, while episode two introduces us to a couple of his colleagues, easy-going Maeda Ichiro and his extremely savvy university buddy, Tanaka. Both men have been plodding along stably within the company by refusing to take sides in the power struggle, but after they meet Kintaro and take him out for a night out on the town, all that changes. As is expected with shows as contrived as this, the group falls foul of some rowdy Yakuza who dislike Kintaro's popularity with the ladies. This leads to an inevitable confrontation and inevitable problems at work the next day when the Yakuza'a bosses come looking for revenge. Episode three provides a nice change of location when Kintaro goes on a fishing trip with his elderly boss, but new setting belies a large amount of important exposition on the power hierarchy within the company, and just where old man Yamamoto currently stands. It also introduces a possible love triangle between Kintaro, Yamamoto's impressionable young grand-daughter, Yuki and their partial deaf maid, Harumi – who bears an uncanny resemblance to Kintaro's late wife. The opening credits suggest there's a lot more to come from these two women.
In the final episode on this disc Kintaro is making his way back from the fishing trip by train and bumps into an old friend from his Hasshu days, who has now become a very successful drag artist. He recalls the story of how Kintaro met his sweetheart Akemi and ended his affiliation with the Hasshu league. In keeping with Kintaro's evident violent streak this is a pretty turbulent flashback that deals with some painful themes, like rape and attempted suicide – not to mention the epic biker run where the Hasshu gathered over 10,000 members together in a huge exodus across Japan in Kintaro's last act as a biker. This makes for a surprisingly action packed episode in an otherwise very serious and political show, but that's Salaryman Kintaro for you, the show is anything but easy to define. The tragic elements of Kintaro's backstory ensure it's not just a contrived and simplistic character drama, while the complex and believable portrayal of corporate chicanery ensure that neither is it a dull political plotboiler. Slap in some very jarring violence and you have a strange mix indeed, but one that has many rewards for those who are prepared to look past the slightly cheesy melodrama.
PresentationI was a little surprised to discover that Salaryman Kintaro is presented in anamorphic 1.76:1 ratio, given that the show is a good four years old now and is set mostly in corporate offices. The framing does appear tight in places but I checked screengrabs from the original TV broadcast and it appears that Artsmagic have remained true to the show's original aspect ratio afterall. Kintaro isn’t a particularly flashy show so there's no fancy animation or soft shading going on and the transfer looks generally pleasing throughout. The image is reasonably sharp and the colour scheme is rich, with no bleeding or any particularly bothersome chroma noise present. Contrast and brightness levels are fine and the print itself is in pristine condition. The one black mark is a distracting amount of Edge Enhancements.
Artsmagic's usual double whammy of Japanese DD2.0 or DD5.1 is present on the disc, both are up to their usual standards as well – I.E the DD2.0 is nice solid audio track while the DD5.1 is a rather poor remix from the stereo track. Having sat through volume one twice now with each track I can report there are no major problems with either audio option, both present clean, clear audio throughout with no major tearing of dialogue or harsher sounds. However, the DD5.1 is completely overblown, the bass thuds like a muffled clump with no real definition and the volume levels are needlessly high. As usual with Artsmagic 5.1 remixes you get the exact same sound coming through every speaker –just at different volumes - so there's very little directionality here, it's just a wall of sound.
In comparison the DD2.0 gets everything right, dialogue remains pleasingly centred and although this isn't the kind of series that makes use of the stereo speakers, when called for they do kick in rather well. It may sound restrained in comparison to the DD5.1, but it provides a much more natural audio presentation.
Optional English subtitles are included, with no spelling or grammatical problems.