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"Don't dis' white-collar workers, dummy."—Kintaro
The Japanese have had an odd fascination with salarymen (or sarariimen, their phonetic rendering of the English-based word) since the end of the American Occupation, when the country's economy industrialized and much of the populace flowed into urban areas like Tokyo to take white-collar corporate jobs. Salarymen are most often the butts of jokes (there's even been a television game show in Japan in which salarymen are fed sake until rip-roaring drunk, then forced to perform various feats). They're seen as drones and corporate bondservants. They're the poor saps we read about in the West whose lives are comprised of insanely long hours at work, moderate pay, and early deaths from coronary artery disease.
Despite the cultural disdain for low-level white-collar workers, a sizable portion of the Japanese population self-identifies as salarymen. This is why Hiroshi Motomiya's Salaryman Kintaro manga proved such a hit, spawning not only this anime adaptation, but a 1999 live-action film directed by Takashi Miike (Gozu). Salaryman Kintaro turns convention on its head by offering a sort of ronin white-collar worker, a man to challenge the mindless thrum of corporate life, elevating the urban capitalistic economy to a kind of new feudalism with a Bushido all its own. Yajima Kintaro is a former motorcycle gang leader who works in the General Affairs Department of the Yamato Construction Company. His unwavering individualism and rough-and-tumble style slowly transforms the corporate culture around him.
Facts of the Case
This DVD from ArtsMagic offers the first four episodes of the anime:
• Kintaro Joins a Company
• Kintaro Has a Fight
• Kintaro Steals a Girl's Heart
• Kintaro Runs Wild
With its muted cover and pedestrian title, Salaryman Kintaro isn't likely to catch one's eye among the razzle-dazzle lining the shelves of the anime section at the local retail mega-chain. It offers no 50-foot mecha, tentacled demons, or bustier-popping sci-fi chicks. That said, it's a subversive little anime well worth checking out. Kintaro is a Zatoichi-like figure for modern, corporate Japan: an unlikely hero among the ranks of timid white-collar peons, a champion of the exploited. His devotion to his dead wife and infant son is also reminiscent of the Lone Wolf and Cub series. He fits, in other words, the classic mold of the Japanese anti-hero—an oddball who doesn't readily fit into any of the existing social classes, yet manages to find a noble balance between individuality and devotion to the collective.
Salaryman Kintaro satirizes the numbing groupthink and dehumanizing emphasis on devotion to company that characterizes the corporate world in Japan (and elsewhere). It appeals to the Japanese urban-dweller because it doesn't merely lampoon their way of life; it transforms it into something grand and meaningful. Despite appearances, Kintaro's power at Yamato Construction Company isn't rooted in his ability to kick ass. It's the effect his questioning of the status quo has on others that turns the company upside down. His fresh perspective awakens his coworkers. Suddenly men like Tanaka and Maeda question the corrupt figures who run Yamato, and discover the resolve to oppose them.
While much of this valiant anti-authoritarianism is expressed through good old-fashioned fisticuffs, there is also more subtle satire and parody at play, as in the second episode when the beaten yakuza, rather than seeking a blood vendetta against Kintaro and his pals as all good movie yakuza would, register a complaint with Yamato Construction as though they're customers treated rudely by the company's employees. It's this genre-defying sensibility—salarymen behaving like yakuza, and yakuza behaving like salarymen—that distinguishes the series and makes it a pleasure to watch.
Of the first four episodes of the show, the first two are the most entertaining. This is largely because they work fairly well as stand-alone satire. Kintaro's backstory and his entry into the world of white-collar work are humorous, and both episodes deliver fun fight sequences. In episodes three and four, the show fills in the gaps of the characters' backstories and begins to establish a larger story arc concerning the fight between Kintaro and the evil President Ohshima over the soul of Yamato Construction. As such, the episodes feel more expository and less witty. They also lack the dynamic action sequences of the introductory episodes. Coupled with subsequent episodes of the show, however, they might be more satisfying.
Salaryman Kintaro's animation offers stiff character movement and plenty of budget-driven short cuts, but it's good enough to get the story across. ArtsMagic's DVD offers the episodes in a solid 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer that presents accurate, fully-saturated colors, a clean image, and little in the way of video artifacts.
Two Japanese audio mixes are available. The first is the original stereo track, and it's the more satisfying, offering well-balanced dialogue, effects, and music. The second option is a Dolby 5.1 mix that has many of the flaws so often present in surround mixes created from stereo sources. Sound effects and music sometimes overwhelm the dialogue, and the entire soundscape feels forced and artificial.
In addition to the four episodes of the show, the disc contains a six-minute video interview with director Tomoharu Katsumata. He talks about the current state and quality of anime, and why he chose to be an anime director. In a seven-minute video interview, producer Toru Nakano talks about the evolving technology of anime production, and how he became a producer of anime. Those are the only supplements. While they're not bad, some cultural notes, either in the form of a booklet or a text-based supplement on the DVD itself, would have been helpful in sorting out some of the episodes' specific details likely to fly over the heads of Westerners (the second episode, for example, has an entire scene that will be mostly lost on anyone unfamiliar with the rules of Mahjong).
Salaryman Kintaro is a smart, funny, and action-packed series. Its setting in modern-day Japan and its complete lack of the supernatural is a refreshing change of pace from so much of the anime out there. These first four episodes show promise. Hopefully, subsequent volumes will pay off on that promise.
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Scales of Justice
• Interview with Director Tomoharu Katsumata
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