TV | Wide Angle

Netflix and Hulu unleash Japanese travel shows with improved mileage

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Original Japanese programs made for subscription video streaming services have thus far been less focused on finding new formulas and more about upgrading the familiar. With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that travel shows — or at least offerings that use countries that aren’t Japan as a backdrop — have started popping up on Netflix and Hulu.

Two shows now available on the aforementioned platforms highlight different ways this familiar globe-hopping format is adjusting to the realities of on-demand entertainment. While one sticks closely to the way terrestrial networks choose to show the world to Japanese viewers, the other offers nuanced looks into other cultures that, at times, stand as some of the most dizzying television in Japan right now.

Model and actress Kiko Mizuhara played a prominent role in 2019’s “Queer Eye: We’re In Japan!” mini series, serving as a tour guide for the show’s five protagonists. She has now landed her own vehicle, the Hulu-backed “Kiko’s Infinite Journey” (or “Throw Away Your Bra and Go On a Journey,” as its Japanese title is translated), which debuted recently with an episode in which she explores China.

Like the majority of travel segments clogging up variety shows, “Infinite Journey” appears less interested in teaching viewers about how other people live and more about dropping a celebrity into a fish-out-of-water scenario. The educational merits of a television program don’t necessarily make or break its overall quality (if it did, NHK would be crushing it), but “Kiko’s Infinite Journey,” at least in its initial episode, fails to even entertain.

Some portions of the show’s debut fare much better than others, especially when Mizuhara tries out local food. It pushes her toward new experiences without exoticizing them, and manages to avoid falling into cliche territory. The rest, though, finds her meandering through cities and nature, stopping for an occasional selfie with fans or speeding up when a mob of older women chase after her while chanting “Kiko” in a particularly goofy moment.

But there is a central shakiness with “Kiko’s Infinite Journey,” established in the trailer and the first episode’s opening minutes. Is it a drama, or is it a documentary? While this might just be a smart way to avoid being called out as phony, as so many other Japanese travel shows have, it also ends up leaving the program muddled. The narrative introduced by Mizuhara is that she wants to build up her “identity” by seeing the world, at a time where she has become reviled on social media over posts perceived by some as disrespectful to Japanese culture. This tension helps make Mizuhara one of the most interesting celebrities in Japan right now, but the show fails to explore any of this in its initial episode. It feels more like a well-thought-out Instagram post from someone studying abroad.

“Ainori Love Wagon: African Journey” fares better. The latest installment of the long-running reality show — the third for Netflix — wraps up this week in Japan and has just debuted internationally. For the unfamiliar, it finds a mix of single men and women riding a pink bus overseas as they try to find love. Yet there’s so much more bubbling beneath, making it must-see Japanese television for those overseas.

It helps that the dating game at its center always keeps “Ainori” interesting. If “Terrace House” approaches relationships like a greenhouse where everyone waits patiently for seeds to sprout, “Ainori” is more like making popcorn. Participants are taken out of their comfort zones and have to adjust immediately, and feelings burst and fade quickly. It also avoids the real-or-staged dilemma “Kiko’s Infinite Journey” suffers from by not shying away from getting the crew involved, resulting in some of its best moments.

What helps it rise above just being reality show comfort food, though, is how it approaches Africa. Geopolitics have always lurked beneath the show’s romantic games, but this season’s triumph is that it spends significant time on both traumatic and positive topics in the countries it visits. A segment on, say, a fashion-allergic contestant getting a haircut will transition to a 10-minute interlude focused on issues ranging from the use of laptops in classrooms to the history of child soldiers in conflict. The most notable of these “edutainment” stretches focuses on the Rwandan genocide, which features a conversation about colonialism, racism and trying to make peace with the past — just what you’d expect from a show that, minutes ago, revolved around a couple making pasta.

It’s entertaining, enlightening and far more thoughtful than most reality shows, Japanese or otherwise. “Ainori” shows how travel programs can flourish in the streaming era, by taking in-depth dives into countries beyond Japan without sacrificing any entertainment value.

New episodes of “Ainori Love Wagon: African Journey” are released on Netflix on Thursdays and also stream on Fuji On Demand. “Kiko’s Infinite Journey” is available for streaming on Hulu.