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TELEVISION REVIEW

Bring a Zen mind and enjoy the ride

January 19, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"JAPANLAND," which begins tonight on KCET and continues over the following three Thursdays, is a pleasantly meandering documentary by Karin Muller that offers scenes from a year spent in Japan, back in 2000 and 2001. With Muller as cinematographer, editor, writer and narrator, the film has a homemade charm that its technical adeptness doesn't diminish.

Observational and confessional rather than conversational, the film is presented as a personal odyssey; it begins with Muller's traveling to Tokyo to deepen her study of judo, in which she holds a black belt. Again and again she states her desire (and her failure) to get truly inside the skin of the Japanese. (These points are more fully developed in her companion book, "Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa," or "harmony.") If she doesn't construct any really convincing thesis or offer any penetrating insights, she nevertheless has a gift for pointing her camera in the right direction and holding it still, and though some of the narrative transitions seem a little contrived, overall the film flows gracefully.

What Muller misses in depth, she makes up for in breadth. It's a major minor work, one might say, a kind of long glimpse into a world not truly comprehensible to anyone not born into it, and all the more fascinating because of it. In Japan, ancient tradition and modern technology collide like nowhere else, so that the place seems almost like a work of science fiction. The past there runs deep -- among the people Muller encounters is a 24th generation sword maker and a 35th generation trainer of Zen archers -- even as the nation strives to be the world's most modern. Those contrasts are the meat of "Japanland."

A healthy-looking girl who bustles about under a backpack at least half her size, Muller is a former Peace Corps volunteer and National Geographic staffer who speaks five languages. She had already documented trips to Vietnam, where she hitchhiked for seven months, and South America, where she followed the old Inca Road 3,000 miles through the Andes.

She is up for just about anything, from walking on hot coals to taiko drumming to shooting arrows from horseback. Most important, she has the gift of gaining access; it probably didn't hurt that she's so ready to pitch in, helping to harvest rice or fire a kiln or clean or cook or light lanterns for the Japanese Day of the Dead. Muller gets up close to monks and sumo wrestlers, geishas and fishermen, volunteer firemen and sake makers. Perpetually on the move through exquisite countryside and crowded cities, she walks the old roads that trace the bones of early Japan, rides in the cab of a steam train, joins parades and protests.

Because there's no real story arc and no real conclusions it isn't necessary to watch the whole series: You can dip in any time and see something interesting, or simply beautiful.

*

'Japanland'

Where: KCET

When: 9-10 tonight

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