Documentary Series Review: “Prime Japan”

By | June 7, 2021

Watching documentaries about Japan is generally not high on my list of things to do, but a friend strongly recommended the series “Prime Japan”, available for free as part of Amazon Prime, so I decided to check it out. The first episode was focused on sushi, but frankly I felt like I already knew a good deal about that topic so I started with the 2nd episode about ryokan (旅館), which are traditional Japanese inns.

Overall, the episode was quite entertaining, but there was a clear list of strong and weak points in my mind, so I’ll go over each of those.

To begin with, the host Jonathan Sherr really detracted from the show, though for the most part I blame this on the direction and screenwriting rather than the actor himself. Several times in this episode, Jonathan appeared in the middle of a beautiful scene and said some cheesy lines, like “Wow… isn’t this… refreshing”, accompanied by some odd facial expressions that didn’t seem to match what he was saying or the setting. His presence truly was a kyouzame (something that ruins what would normally be a good feeling or mood). Fortunately, he is only present in part of the show.

Second, although the music was quite enjoyable, it really didn’t seem to match up with the setting. Imagine hearing random jazz music while watching scenes of a centuries-old ryokan. Ultimately, I think that both the directorial music choices, as well as perhaps those related to the host, were supposed to be aimed at a Western audience––though they feel like inappropriate choices to someone like me who knows more about Japanese culture (and has higher standards for what to expect in a documentary).

The last problem of note was that the introduction had a really strange animation that seemed very elaborate, while at the same time appearing low-budget. It gave a retro-feel and started things out awkwardly. The series was produced in 2016/2017, but the animation feels like it is much older than that.

The good news is that I felt the bad points of this series were counterbalanced by a few really good points. For example, the content itself was very well-written and informative, going into detail about things like cultural or historical details that I had never heard before. The narration was done skillfully in Japanese by actress Takako Tokiwa, who actually had appeared in the classic J-Drama “Beautiful Life”, although I didn’t make that connection at the time. All of the narration was supported by English titles. While I wasn’t focusing that much on translation quality, from what I could tell it seemed pretty good except for a few areas where I would have rendered things a bit differently. To be honest, the Japanese narration were actually quite high level, with many words I was not familiar with.

The visuals were also very beautiful throughout the entire episode. I don’t see it winning any awards due to special camera or lighting techniques, but the cinematography (the series was shot in 4K UHD) was perfect for illustrating the various points about Japan’s culture. Finally, even though I mentioned the music as a negative point, if you ignore the “authentic” angle it does add a nice touch to the overall experience. For comparison, playing such generic “mood music” in Asian restaurants around the US is not uncommon, although some places do feature more authentic songs.

I didn’t get a chance to watch any more episodes yet, but from what I have heard all the other episodes are of similar production quality. Of those listed, the three that I am most interested in watching are: “Made in Japan”, “Japanese Sword”, and “Zen”. To be fair to the series, it is possible that some of the negative elements I mentioned above will get ironed out in subsequent episodes, though unless there is a changes in production staff I doubt there would be significant changes.

If you check out any of these episodes let me know how it was.

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