James May: Our Man in Japan is a new travel series from Amazon, charting an eleven week trip in Japan, from it’s northern coast to it’s southern coast, by presenter James May. My fascination with Japan began with Jonathan Ross’ Japanorama, broadcast in the early 2000s. Since then, I have seen countless travel shows and documentaries about the country and its customs, but it has been some time since one has gripped me so thoroughly.
This six part series sees James explore the country in a variety of segments as he navigates his way through Japan’s main islands. Each segment is introduced by an often humorous title card, presenting a bemusing word that has either been discovered by James or lost in translation. The tone of the series is very playful (in one episode, James refers to it as a “travel show full of light-hearted laughs”), but the producers struck a fine balance in the casting of presenter May.
There is a large emphasis on fooling James and presenting him as a sort of baka gaijin (stupid foreigner) by involving him in many outlandish scenarios, but the presenter never quite succumbs to the bumbling Brit abroad stereotype. Though he can be haphazard and blundering, he is nonetheless an inquisitive man, and through his sheer willingness to get involved and try new things—though he may fail at them—he is able to come away with a level of understanding and enjoyment that ultimately gives the series it’s charm.
I feel a lot of English-language shows made on Japan fall into the trap of portraying it as some sort of bizarre strange land that is to be observed and experienced like an amusement park, without actually understanding what makes it tick, and while the actual depth of content here is not staggering (though it is very diverse), James is the prefect presenter as someone very British and not at all obstinate. There’s this great balance between contrasting Japan’s supposed ‘otherness’ with James’ British slant and embracing the culture in all its richness and variety.
All the usual bases are covered, from haiku and samurai, to cat cafes and cherry blossoms, but also featured are many esoteric and seldom seen recreations, such as competitive snow ball fighting and interactive digital art installations, as well as more Japanese specific pastimes like the inconspicuous yatai. James approaches each subject with typical British dry wit, which may at times seem a tad condescending (though it is for comedic effect and not at all malicious) and often takes precedent over any meaningful examination, but James’ thorough participation ensures there is at least a measure of depth and intricacy on display with a lot of entertainment.
James and company do a brilliant job of averting certain tropes so they don’t fall into well worn terrain. I was impressed that, during the inevitable segment on manga, instead of looking at its seedier aspects as these sorts of shows tend to do, it was instead viewed as a literary form that is read by all ages and professions. In another segment on otaku, rather than explore the usual route of the anime geek, they took the phrase at its most fundamental and spent the day with some very enthusiastic train spotters. Again, in a part about anime, rather than trace footsteps, James gets involved with voice acting, performing the part of a barking dog in an upcoming film.
While James’ activities are obviously planned, there is this feeling that the events themselves are spontaneous, unscripted, and largely improvised, which keeps the show fresh and entertaining. As he travels Japan, James is accompanied by a succession of interpreters, until he meets the eccentric Yujiro, who seemed to leave such an impression that he eventually joins James for the rest of the series. The two make an unexpectedly excellent pair, playing off of one another with brilliant camaraderie and comedy.
As a light travel show, James May: Our Man in Japan ticks all the boxes. It is wonderfully rich in content if a little lacking in depth. That said, James once again proves an apt choice as someone who has travelled Japan before, and who first visited the country over twenty-five years prior to the making of this programme. He offers some insight into a changing Japan, contrasting history, tradition, and modernity with the polarity (or lack thereof) between the east and the west. It is also beautifully shot, displaying Japan in all its abundant glory, from the mesmeric snow-coverd Hokkaido, to the dense megapolis of Tokyo, and the exquisite greenery of Shikoku.
I was genuinely sad that it had to come to a close. It’s a thoroughly packaged series that does feel like it could have been two episodes longer, but it stands a riotously funny and truly high-quality production on Japan, showcasing both the country’s deep history and its alluring modernity with a fascinating variety of local people.