The new James May series – “James May: Our Man In…Japan” debuted on Amazon Prime Video today – four of the six episodes are immediately available – and the first episode of those is a 48-minute offering entitled “Go”.
May takes time off from his “The Grand Tour” duties to visit Japan but the style is very similar to the TGT style and caters to his persona from that show. “Hello Viewers!” James begins with an introduction to the overall scope of the series before diving into the first segment on the island of Hokkaido – which James immediately informs us makes up 20% of Japan’s land mass along with 5% of the total population yet has only been part of the country for 150 years [and sits at the same latitude as France – an extra bonus fact he tosses in at the end].
James is in Hokkaido so that he can attempt and fail at dogsledding. After two poor attempts result in an exclamation from his trainer that he has no balance, James succeeds on the third attempt [or at least the third attempt that was shown].
From there, James moves on to a short explanation of the popular Japanese poetry form called haiku – consisting of a 5-7-5 syllable format – and proceeds to read a haiku [something about snow on his bamboo hat] before traveling to Obihiro [population: 169,000 or so]. There, he enters social huts and converses with the natives – first with a help of a translation device and then on his own.
James then employs a Japanese guide [Masayo] who takes him to a snowball fighting league. The snowball [really, they are ice balls] fighting league consists of seven-player teams who receive 90 snowballs per round to win a best-of-three competition. James is recruited to be on the men’s team [Snow Bird] as they take on the women’s team and almost immediately proves to be a detriment to his team as he is hit twice – the only member of his team to be hit – and causes his team to lose both games and receives an admonishment from Masayo [“It’s your fault.”]
Moving on, a planned filmed segment is scrapped due to weather and instead, we visit James’ hotel room where he delivers a brief tutorial on Japanese phrases of translation for common hotel room instructions before leaving with the wise adage – “Never try to bite your own navel.”
A brief visit to a noodle café – where James is temporarily flummoxed by the ticket-producing machine and ordering process – precedes a visit to a Samurai swordsmith where James becomes an apprentice for a day, which involves standing, watching and commenting. This is followed by a trip to a Sapporo microbrewery where James and crew members sample the local ales.
Finally, the episode ends with an attempted octopus fishing expedition, but since the fishing boat is forced to leave at a later time than usual to accommodate the film crew, the seas are deemed too rough and the fishing expedition is booted. James replaces that failed excursion with a brief fling in a dining establishment that prepares and serves octopi-related dishes and finishes by enjoying some squid ink and sea urchin ice creams with Masayo.
The finale has a gift exchange gone wrong as James attempts to present Masayo with a gift encased in a difficult-to-open box but with Masayo flailing at getting the box open, he instead replaces it with a gift of a Queen Elizabeth towel while Masayo gifts him with a traditional Japanese “happy jacket”. Since the gift inside the box was never actually shown, James reveals at the end “It was a teapot.”
Overall, the show was essentially constructed in roughly the same style and format as the “Top Gear”, “The Grand Tour” and James’ other numerous series and, as such, was enjoyable to both watch and listen as James learns more about Japan than he thought he knew. We fully expect to see some cameos in future episodes as a surprise element but this first episode was a solid and entertaining effort bolstered by James’ comfortable narrating style – we give it a 91 out of 100.