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DVD Review: Shadow Warriors (Kage no Gundan) – The Complete First Season DVD Box Set

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It's the 19th century in Edo, Japan. A dark shape moves quickly but silently through the bushes. It leaps on a rooftop and creeps in an opened window of a bedroom. The sleeping occupant doesn't even realize that in ten seconds he will be dead.

Welcome to the world of the ninja, as featured in the Japanese TV series Shadow Warriors. This series ran for four seasons during the early '80s and starred the legendary Sonny Chiba as Hattori Hanzo, leader of the exiled Iga ninja clan. Kill Bill Vol. 1 fans will recall that a character named Hattori Hanzo is a master swordsmith who creates a special katana for Uma Thurman's character in the film. In an interview with Quentin Tarantino, the director explained that although it wasn't implicitly stated in the film, Chiba's Hanzo character in Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a direct descendant of the Hattori Hanzo character in Shadow Warriors.

Fans of Shadow Warriors or ninjas in general can now purchase the complete first season on DVD. All 27 episodes are featured on seven discs and have English subtitles. The set also includes a special interview with Chiba and a 12-page booklet on the series.

As a series, the quality of Shadow Warriors was a pleasant surprise. I had expected the usual attributes of early 80's television shows – cheesy dialogue, weak plotlines, and little character development. However, I was drawn from the very first episode. Shadow Warriors takes place around the 19th century. The series begins with the sudden death of the current shogun, forcing his five-year-old son to take over prematurely. Although the young shogun has adult handlers who will run the country until he comes of age, the weakened structure of the ruling class naturally becomes prey to those who wish to usurp the throne. A series of night time assassinations take place, and in desperation the shogun's main guardian turns to Hattoti Hanzo and his exiled clan for help.

Since Shadow Warriors is a TV show about ninjas, one has to wonder about the quality of the action. Yes, there are cool ninja fights in the dark and shuriken tossed at people. And while the violence isn't overly bloody and gory (compared to say, your average CSI episode), there are scenes of people being stabbed to death – albeit done in a stylish manner. And since Japanese media has less stringent rules about showing sexually explicit scenes on television, expect to see a naked breast or two every now and then.

With such an interesting series, it is a huge shame that the quality of this DVD set is very poor. The DVDs come in a flimsy cardboard box. The cover art on each DVD is fuzzy, like it was printed on someone's home printer from 1996. Worst of all, the video itself looks horrible. The transfer is very poor and obviously there was no attempt was made to restore the prints. I have watched films much older than this series that looked like they were filmed only a few years ago.

While die-hard Shadow Warriors fans and general ninja enthusiasts will no doubt still enjoy this series, I just hope that Season 2 will be of a higher quality.

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About Toni Schwartz