June 18, 2012
I can't think of another travel program as simple and serenely compelling as NHK's Somewhere Street.
The basic crew (I'm sure there are more) is a Steadicam operator, a producer, and a sound man. The producer and the mikes are kept off screen. You experience only what the Steadicam operator sees and hears.
A "host" never appears on camera.
They avoid the tourist traps, gliding instead into little shops, peeking around open doors, encountering slices of life here and there, stopping people to ask what is going on and where.
The narration has the air of a curious tourist thinking out loud as he strolls along. And happens to be perfectly fluent in the language.
Here's where mike placement come into play. The conversations are engaged in the local language. The interviewee is subtitled. The interviewer (always off camera) is looped in Japanese, while preserving the ambient sound.
The Steadicam is the key to the whole thing. Nothing about the cinematography breaks the fourth wall and reminds the viewer, "Hey, I've got a camera! Hey, look at me and the camera!" The "frame" completely disappears.
You really are there. The effect is as if you had your own Babel Fish. They understand everything you say, and you understand everything they say.
Somewhere Street could be easily localized--just loop in English narration and change the subtitles--or shamelessly copied. Somebody at PBS really ought to.
Shusei Murai (村井秀清) composed the music. Starting with the theme song, the first 15 tracks of Merged Images III are from the show. The CD is available at Amazon-JP and CD Japan (English site). The WMP versions are here.