James May: Our Man in Japan

My hubby and I have always wanted to visit Japan. As that’s not going to happen anytime soon because of this pesky virus, what better way to take in what Japan has to offer than a TV programme?

With a nod to Graeme Greene in the programme’s title, Our Man in Japan is a travelogue which follows James May’s progress from the north of Japan to the south, stopping off at various points on the way. He visits the major cities as well as exploring the cultural activities and traditions for which Japan is famous like samurai sword making, animé and geishas. I was keen to see what this programme would reveal about Japan and whether I would like the way that it was perceived and subsequently delivered by Mr. May.

I’m not really sure what to make of James May. I’ve seen him in Top Gear and The Grand Tour and thought he was alright, a non-committal assessment which is quite damning in its banality. His solo programmes have been a bit dull in a well-meaning British kind of way but I’m not sure that 40-something women who craft are his target audience so I’m sure he won’t lose any sleep over that.

One thing I do quite like is the way his face scrunches up when he finds something tremendously funny. But that’s about all the preconceived ideas I have about him. With that all taken into account, the attraction to this programme was Japan, not James May. However, against my better judgement, I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by this series and especially the presenter. I mean, after Michael Palin, he had big shoes to fill.

James May's scrunched up face when laughing
Scrunched up face

I’m not going to go into an episode by episode guide here as I wouldn’t want to make Wikipedia redundant but I am going to describe some of the highlights.

Firstly, my favourite episode. This is when May and his crew visit Kyoto and use a small robot called RoBoHon to act as a guide to the city’s main attraction, its temples. He has to type in a nickname and misspells it so RoBoHon calls him the wrong name throughout. I found this hilarious for some reason as did everyone on the show too, including May.

He also visits Mount Fuji, the iconic volcano, a geographical feature which will forever be representative of Japan, like Table Mountain is to Cape Town. Here, he does a depiction of Fuji on canvas and has a bit of a hissy fit at the director: whilst delivering a very heartfelt and improvised speech about the mountain and the painting of it and how difficult it has been for him, and getting a touch emotional about the whole process, a bus comes into shot on the road behind and the director wants him to redo it. May refuses and explains why, in a very direct way, he does not want to do it. It all feels a bit awkward to watch but luckily, May calms down enough to enjoy his next encounter…

Mount Fuji and cherry blossoms
Photo by Life of Wu on Pexels.com

…which is with a geisha. His captivation with her, even after she tells him, giggling that her musical instrument is made of kitten skin, is palpable and quite endearing, and demonstrates why these traditional female Japanese entertainers have their enduring reputation to this day. You can sense in the way he interacts with her that he is a little in awe, whether with the tradition that the geisha represents or with the geisha herself, I am not sure but the way that he conducts himself during the experience points almost to a reverence for his interaction with this aspect of Japanese culture.

Photo by Sergi Montaner on Pexels.com

Now, to the episode that made me ensure that we visit Japan which was the final one in this season, Season One. In it, May goes to Shikoku, which looks absolutely beautiful, and travels on a bicycle on a path that takes him on suspension bridges and which allows him to take in the full extent of Japan’s coastal beauty. Two things I noticed about this that made me quite excited are:

  • The cycling presents you with the most fantastic views of the ocean and the islands that make up Japan
  • It all looked quite flat and might be something I could attempt to do myself (although that could just be the way it was edited)

But it is the Torii Shrine Gate in Miyajima Island that really captivated me: a gate that can only be reached at low tide and just looks like it’s been plonked into the sea. Its solo majesty at the entrance to a cove on the island makes it look like a sentinel, watching over the land and the sea beyond. It is eerie but also gives you a sense of its strength, never moving, never bending.

I would love to see this myself with my own eyes.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Finally, in terms of the way that the show was produced, I think that it was light enough to be entertaining, cultural enough to be enlightening and daft enough to be humorous. I liked the use of Japanese letters throughout which were projected onto the screen to herald the next section of the episode. They were literally used to spell one word which had a link to the next focused itinerary item and were pithy in their brevity.

It is beautifully filmed throughout and May’s dry British wit and gracious manners make this a delight to watch. Without the more powerful personalities of Clarkson and Hammond to overshadow him, May comes across as a cultured gent, mindful of customs and courtesies and keen to discover the cultural nuances of the Land of the Rising Sun. His learning of Japanese and his attempts to converse in it with the people he meets along his journey are also admirable.

I was hesitant at first about May’s ability to bring his experience of Japan alive for me in a way that I would appreciate it but he has done this, and done it well: I would definitely watch a May travelogue again.

Well done, Bim!

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