Those enchanting NHK World-Japan documentaries

Unabashedly poetic, one of the documentaries of NHK World-Japan on its YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/user/NHKWorld) is called Rainy Nights, Summer Mysteries, and the presentation lives up to the expectations generated by that title.

These documentaries are classified under NHK World, a way of introducing Japan to the non-Japanese. As such, there are foreigners acting as narrators (and, yes, speaking in excellent Japanese), or persons who introduce the series. In this film, we are brought into a world where seasons are not just a change in temperature but also the experience of magical things that appear with the shift in the wind, or a tiny trembling in the environment.

One of these is the luminescent fungi that abound on a mountain in Kochi Prefecture (the equivalent of a province in our country). It asks the question about why these fungi give out an iridescent green light but it does not belabor the science behind them. We are, after all, curious human beings ready to be in awe of anything in the forest.

With glimmering fungi here, can fireflies be far behind? Even in our country, we have fireflies. The difference that the Japanese bring to an appreciation of nature is their propensity to ritualize their approach to the elements around them.

Karl and Tina enjoying a morning outside their old Japanese house

In Mie Prefecture, another event, the festival known as Mushiokuri, involves not watching insects but driving them away. It is a ritual aimed at driving away the insects that multiply easily during the summer season. However, if we examine the Japanese term for this ritual, the word “okuri” is to send off in a kind of farewell.

The ritual involves a procession or parade on the paths built in between rice paddies, with people bearing torches and banging on drums. The documentarian offers a new insight on why the rituals are fast vanishing, and this is because with pesticides, the insects have all but disappeared and there is nothing to be sent off anymore. The documentary notes how the ceremonials are being revived and new lessons learned.

Despite the absence of winter in our country (and maybe because we don’t have it), I became fascinated with a documentary on a German couple living in a village in Niigata, noted for having great snowfall at certain times of the year.

At the center of the narrative in a documentary, titled Kar and Tina: Village Life in the Deep Snow, are two people who relocated from Germany to this rural village nearly isolated in the winter of 2021, when more than 4 meters (that is about 13 feet!) of snow covered the village.

The ritual of sending off the insects during Mushiokuri

Karl, an architect, began his adventure by renovating a kominka, an old traditional Japanese house and turning it into their home. He worked on other structures in the village. During the filming, one woman who is retiring is viewing another kominka in the process of being rebuilt.

More than just a tale of an aging society, this episode narrates a culture where people need to leave the city if they are to experience freedom. The documentary does not dwell on how repressive or demanding corporate life is, or the so-called lifetime employment in Japan that retirement is not a pause but a beginning for a new life. We only meet a woman who enjoys foraging for wild vegetables on the mountain. She is with older women, some in their 90s, who are still able to explore the surroundings. In their company is another housewife who discovers wild meadow flowers and creates art out of them.

We discover through the eyes and minds of Karl and Tina and the other villagers how a snow and a winter scene can be calming, and how they can “warm” the heart of the person. For Karl, walking on the snow into the woods can clear his mind and allow it to be “karappo” or empty.

But what is a documentary on Japanese culture and society without one that focuses on their fastidious art of preservation. In a documentary, The Unknown Master of Restoration” we meet Mayuyama Koji and his son, Yu. The father and son are a tandem in restoring anything precious that has been broken. And we are not talking of expensive wares but museum pieces.

As the documentary begins, we see them dealing with the Fujita Museum. Offered to them for restoration is a “chawan” or a teabowl connected to Sen no Rikyū, the person considered to have the deepest influence on tea ceremony. Before them, another restorer has applied to it the Japanese way of repairing, called “kintsugi.” This approach is spellbinding enough, with the expert putting gold inlay where the parts have been shattered. Mayuyama, however, describes “kintsugi” as “urushaii” (literally, noisy or creating a clatter), which means the restoration calls attention to itself.

Another object turned over to them is a Celadon Phoenix Flower Vase. Referencing a national treasure, the restorers discover that what they have before them is missing the phoenix figures. This means that they need to create two new pieces of Phoenix head, and make sure they are equal in dimension to the extant form. The son is assigned this formidable task.

Discounting kintsugi, the two restorers remove the gilding applied to the bowl and the vase. They then put the pieces together with an exacting eye, using a special glue and paste made from ancient ingredients, including old tea powder. They are aiming at achieving a “tomonaoshi,” which is for the objects to “appear as if they are new.” Indeed, when the restoration is finished, the two individuals who commissioned the father and son the task are incredulous with the results.

The narrator speaks of a broken bowl as “history as being broken.” Regarding the vase, Mayuyama employs a paste that when introduced to a drop of water produces a thin light on the surface, which then matches the new addition to the original texture. According to the documentary, “to restore a piece of pottery is to battle with its sense of translucence.”

The range of NHK World-Japan documentaries is so varied, they pay tribute to the alluring complexity of Japanese cultures. They indicate a style which favors a slow rhythm that allows us to view a scene or an event, with measured annotations between the silences, the words not overwhelming the artefacts before us.