A broad, entertaining overview of Japan – but not for everyone

James May: Our Man in Japan (Amazon)

Victor Stepien reviews 'James May: Our Man in Japan'

This six-part documentary series may not seem to be for everyone, yet it brings more to the table than one might initially expect. The target audience seems to be the bored middle class who lack the social conscience to commune with those less fortunate in their own neighbourhoods and would rather spend their free time on light entertainment. Released by corporate juggernaut Amazon three days into the new year, it is meant to enchant the viewer with beautiful vistas, smatterings of local lore, and countless jokes.

Armed with a spectacular cinematographer (Sean Carswell) and a frenetic director (Tom Whitter), James May, a British television personality, takes the viewer on a journey across the entire country. After traipsing through ancestral temples and rural villages, we are presented with the main cities: Tokyo and Kyoto of course, but also Nagoya and Osaka. The buffet-style offerings, meant as advertisements for potential world travellers with disposable income, could serve as an appealing introduction for anybody who wants to learn more about Japan.

At times, the tone is bemusing. The series is full of unnecessary swearwords and bawdy language, including an obsession with the phallic symbol of fertility. May is often short-tempered and uncouth with his crew and guides, although he never fails to acknowledge his behavioural shortcomings, surely the result of homesickness. The constant pining for a beer may seem odd and repetitive, but it is meant as a nod to the viewer who could be drinking and watching instead of what a critic does—pause, take notes, and research every topic.

The Catholic viewer may find the spiritual aspects of the series intriguing. May introduces us to Shinto, a polytheistic belief in entities tied to nature honoured at the Itsukushima Shrine; Shugendo, a regime of cleansing rituals practised by Yamabushi ascetic hermits from the 12th century to 1872 (when it was suddenly banned), which takes us to Mount Haguro; and even Bushido, the honour code of samurai warriors, who fought their last battle in 1877. The sword, we learn, has a Shinto connotation.

The belligerence of the sword reveals the sombre reality of Japanese culture: its totalitarianism. As one corporate employee, known as a “salaryman”, explains,

In Japan, you’re not allowed to say what you think. And basically, you have to say a tatemae, which is something that respects the other person, and you have to say something that is good for the other person. So you have to suppress your own opinion and respect others. Especially if someone is older than you.

While the repression of free speech may seem abhorrent to the Western viewer, it has an even darker underbelly. May takes us to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, where he reminds us that it was Japan’s truculence that led to this tragedy seven decades ago. Perhaps this explains May’s constant craving for a beer.

Still, Japan is redeemed by its art scene. A light installation called Borderless designed by the collective teamLab at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo shows us that darkness may be replaced by beauty. In the ghost town of Nagoro, artist Tsukimi Ayano’s installation of puppets dancing at a wedding highlights the joys of love and community. For the more literary viewer, May attempts to write a haiku, the Japanese form of poetry whose delight rests upon its simplicity. Hemingway’s joke about Gertrude Stein’s failed attempt to take up the form might have been an amusing reminder of modernist cultural appropriation, but it isn’t mentioned here.

This middle-brown documentary series gives us a broad and entertaining overview of Japan. There is beautiful scenery, unease at its atavistic totalitarianism, and respite in art. Beyond the complexities of Japanese culture, the people are always polite and overly excited. They may be playing up to the camera, living in fear of doing a bad job—or they may accept those idiosyncrasies as their norm.