Empires-Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire (Roadshow) (2003)

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Released 10-Mar-2004

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary Main Menu Introduction
Main Menu Audio
Trailer-The Empires Series
Rating Rated E
Year Of Production 2003
Running Time 159:01 (Case: 165)
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (79:33) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Lyn Goldfarb
Deborah Ann DeSnoo
Studio
Distributor
SBS
Roadshow Home Entertainment
Starring Richard Chamberlain (Narrator)
Case Amaray-Transparent-Secure Clip
RPI $44.95 Music Dave Iwataki
Dana Kaproff


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.78:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    This is the first DVD release from the American-produced PBS TV documentary series Empires: People And Passions That Changed The World, as currently screening in Australia on SBS. This DVD contains all three one-hour episodes of Japan: Memoirs Of A Secret Empire. The other nine DVD titles to follow in this series include Egypt's Golden Empire (already reviewed by Terry M), The Greeks: Crucible of Civilisation, Napoleon, Islam: Empire Of Faith and Peter and Paul and the Christian Revolution.

    Anyone who has managed to catch any of the episodes in the Empires series on SBS will already know that this is a very entertaining and educational documentary series indeed. The documentaries are extremely well written, well crafted and well produced. They are highly enlightening as well as educational.

    This series on Japan covers the fascinating history of that country from the very first European contact in the mid-16th century, through initial unsuccessful attempts at establishing trade whilst still attempting to preserve and maintain their own cultural values intact, then through Japan's self-imposed 200-year period of isolation from the "barbarians" of the outside world, and finally through to the breaking of that long period of isolation with the unannounced and unwelcome arrival of US steamships in the mid-19th century, in turn opening up Japan to the world. Japanese history and Japanese culture is something that many westerners find fascinating, yet most of us probably have no real idea of what that history entailed or how the cultural values came about - or, if we think we do, often this is steeped in incorrect and incomplete stereotypes. This documentary series will fill in many of the knowledge gaps and provide an authoritative insight into this fascinating culture.

    More specifically, the three episodes on the DVD are:

    As an interesting note, this series is narrated by Richard Chamberlain, who of course starred in the highly influential TV mini-series based on James Clavell's best-selling novel Shogun. Shogun was in fact loosely based on the life of Englishman William Adams. See Chris T's review for further details of this great mini-series.

    A note on chapter markers: There is a lack of adequate chapter markers on this DVD, perhaps due to a disc authoring error or perhaps just due to sloppiness. When you watch each of the three episodes in this series, you note that they come with clearly intended section breaks for TV, including obvious fades-to-black and periodic section-headings to indicate the topic about to be next discussed. This would of course have provided the most logical placement and headings for chapters for the DVD, yet what we get instead is a series of chapter markers on the DVD that do not correspond to these points at all. What markers there are on the DVD are completely arbitrary in placement, insufficient (each episode contains only a few chapters, one of which spans the vast majority of the episode anyway), and generally bear no rhyme or reason to the presented material, with chapter markers in some cases even occurring mid-scene. It is a pity that the more obviously intended section breaks within each episode were not observed and followed. As it is, we are left with no effective chapter markings on this DVD at all.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    The quality of the video transfer on offer is on the whole quite pleasing, although a bit variable.

    The presented aspect ratio is the original 1.78:1, as screened on TV, and the transfer is 16x9 enhanced.

    Sharpness is for the most part high, as would be expected of a very recently-produced, decent budget series. Most scenes offer satisfactory to quite pleasing levels of detail in foreground and background images, with little grain, ample shadow detail and minimal low level noise. However some scenes, notably the scenes shot in lower light levels, prove a notable exception to this rule, coming across as noticeably grainier, softer in resolution and with low level noise an issue. This variability is particularly noted in Episode I, whereas the overall quality of the image in latter episodes (mostly employing daytime/brighter scenes) is more uniformly high. The fact that image quality and grain varies with light levels may well be an issue with the quality of film stock used to shoot this series, not lending itself well at all to low light shoots. Interestingly, I note that Terry M also had the same observation to make in his review of Empires: Egypt's Golden Empire, so this issue may well be true of other DVDs to follow in this series too.

    Colour is fairly consistent and well rendered, with adequate saturation and a varied colour palette used to good effect, particularly highlighted in the use of the various Japanese prints and artworks used to illustrate various events in history. The colours never leap off the screen with vibrancy, however. Skin tones appear fine and black levels are for the most part deep, although black levels drop a bit to less solid charcoals in some night time scenes.

    The only MPEG artefact noted is some minor Gibb effect around the closing credits. Film-to-video artefacts consist of only some minor aliasing on very fine lines, such as on the Japanese artworks used to illustrate the events in history. Other than here though, there is virtually no aliasing observed on my setup. Film artefacts, other than the apparent grain in low light scenes, are virtually non existent, barring only very inconsequential small film flecks.

    The English for the Hearing Impaired subtitle language stream is clear, well placed, well timed and accurate.

    This disc is RSDL-formatted, with the layer change occurring relatively unobtrusively at 26:32 in Episode II.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

     The audio transfer does the job well.

    The only track on offer is an English Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (at 224 Kb/s).

    Dialogue quality is fine - perhaps coming across a tad harsh if volume is pumped up too high, but at normal listening volume is perfectly clear and articulated from the rest of the soundtrack. I had no problems with the audio sync.

    The music is appropriate and lends well to the context to do the job. The music is perhaps overused at times in these episodes, no doubt in an apparent belief by the producers that music should be heard constantly throughout in these documentaries, but this is a petty complaint, as certainly the main musical themes themselves are quite catchy and well composed, as far as it goes.

    A liberal but not outstanding use of matrixed surround activity helps to embellish the music score and provide many ambient effects for the onscreen activities taking place.

    Subwoofer use is minimal - it is simply not called upon much, but it is used very occasionally to help accentuate the music (eg drums in dramatic parts) and help with knocks and bumps.
   

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    The only extra is an advertisement for the Empire series, presented using 5 text screens, in which each 2 titles are featured (10 titles in total in this Empires series), in turn each with a further selectable single text screen giving a very brief synopsis.

    After a short Empires series main menu introduction sequence, being animated, with audio and provided in 1.78:1 but not 16x9 enhanced, the main menu for the DVD itself is static with audio and provided in 1.33:1. It is sufficient.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    This DVD does not appear to have been released in either Region 2 or Region 1 yet, yet it is the first release in the Empires series from what I can see here in Region 4. I would expect that even when this title is released in other regions, the Region 4 will remain of equal or better value (judging by Terry M's discovery that the Region 1 release of the Egypt title for example did not have any additional extras and indeed it was not even 16x9 enhanced).

Summary

    The Empires series has proven so far to be a very well produced, well written, enlightening and entertaining documentary series, and this title dealing with Japanese history from mid-16th century through to mid-19th century is certainly no exception. This DVD will go a long way to filling in many knowledge gaps and explain/dispel the reasons behind many Japanese stereotypes. A detailed explanation of the life and code of the samurai and the birth of the town of Edo in particular are fascinating. This is a highly recommended documentary for anyone with even a passing interest in Japanese history.

    The video quality is generally very good, although a bit variable. The audio quality is perfectly sufficient for a documentary of this type. Unfortunately, though, there are no real extras.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Sean Abberton (read my bio)
Thursday, April 08, 2004
Review Equipment
DVDToshiba 2109, using Component output
DisplayToshiba 117cm widescreen rear projection TV. Calibrated with Digital Video Essentials (PAL). This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderYamaha RXV-1000. Calibrated with Digital Video Essentials (PAL).
AmplificationElektra Theatre 150 Watts x 6 channel Power Amplifier
SpeakersOrpheus Aurora III mains, Orpheus Centaurus 1.0 centre, Velodyne CT150 sub and B&W DM303 rears

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DVD Net - Terry K

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