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PBS Home Video presents
Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire (2004)

"Their's is the story of flowering culture, of poetic ritual, and of regent power struggles."
- narrator (Richard Chamberlain)

Review By: Matt Peterson  
Published: May 05, 2004

Stars: Richard Chamberlain
Director: Lyn Goldfarb, Deborah Ann Desnoo

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violent images)
Run Time: 02h:46m:18s
Release Date: April 27, 2004
UPC: 097368778740
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-B+B D-

DVD Review

Okay, I'll admit it, I'm a bit of a japanophile. For some reason, I have a great interest in Japanese culture and history. True, I do enjoy their films, but it goes beyond that. I feel a great connection to the Land of the Rising Sun, but I cannot explain why. It's just one of those inexplicable phenomena—evidence of reincarnation? Probably not, but my affinity toward and respect for the Japanese endures. As a result, I'm always interested in learning more.

Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire is one entry in PBS' upcoming Empires series. A comprehensive look at the history, culture, and details of feudal Japan, the documentary is divided into three episodes. First is The Way of the Samurai, which explores the period of civil war that ravaged the country in the late 1500s and early 1600s. In 1543, missionaries and European traders first set foot on Japanese soil, providing the outside world with the first glimpse of this highly developed, feudal culture. We also witness the complex, bloody rise of Tokugawa Ieyasu, leading to a reign of power that would last nearly three centuries.

Part two, The Will of the Shogun, begins with Japan in a rare state of peace, provided by the absolute control and power of its shogun, Ieyasu. During his rule, the daimyo warlords become unified and Ieyasu begins closing the doors of Japan to the outside world. After expelling the conversion-minded Spanish and Portuguese, Ieyasu's grandson, Iemitsu, is still fearful of the influence of Christianity. After open persecution and the infamous Shimabara Rebellion, Japan is again closed off to foreigners for over 200 years.

In the final part, The Return of the Barbarians, Edo Japan is flourishing, experiencing a Japanese equivalent of the Renaissance, resulting in important cultural and intellectual advances. However, old habits die hard. The samurai armies and warlords begin thirsting for conflict, becoming wary of Western ideology, which begins to make its way back into the isolated country. In 1853, the US representatives arrive to negotiate, leading to the eventual dissolution of the feudal system through the Meiji Restoration. Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai details this period in a less-than-accurate fashion, but manages to capture the effects of the Americans' arrival.

Overall, this is an impressive documentary that tries extremely hard to make the material as visually interesting as possible. The piece is structured around some informative interviews, but the majority depends on briskly edited, well-photographed b-roll footage depicting re-enactments of battles and daily Japanese life, and images of ancient Japanese art. These engaging shots are strung together by Shogun vet Richard Chamberlain's functional narration. As a result, the film is gorgeous to look at, though I do feel the filmmakers over-processed the editing and visuals at times, somewhat cheapening the material. The choice of title font to each section (I'm an admitted font snob), along with some sequences that tend to resemble low-budget samurai films can be distracting. I do wish there was a more languid, meditative pace at times to allow the well-compiled information room to breathe.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is quite beautiful. As stated, the cinematography is very impressive and is well rendered. At times, the colors appear somewhat muted and detail, soft. Grain also crops up here and there. However, this looks to be a source issue, not a digital one. A very nice image.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby 2.0 surround track has some ambient fill in the surrounds, but not as much as one may expect. There is a nice sense of depth to this track, featuring some well-presented, taiko-heavy Japanese music. A functional track.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extras Review: Since the program's runtime is nearly three hours, there is little room left on this RSDL disc. As a result, the only extra is a still menu screen detailing PBS' website on the program.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

An informative, yet overly flashy documentary on the rich, bloody history of feudal Japan. Despite some drawbacks, this is a solid film that features some gorgeous photography. The DVD is barebones, but earns good a/v marks. Recommended.


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