Factual programming has long been one of the main pillars of Japan’s NHK, and the genre has proven to be a strong seller on the global market for its business arm, NHK Enterprises. “The Covid-19 pandemic has made it difficult for us to maintain the volume of new titles, but this tough time has also made us eager to tell stories that need to be told,” says Noriko Aratani, executive producer for global content development at NHK.
Among the latest releases is Heirs of the Red Gene: A Century of Chinese Communist Rule, an in-depth look into the workings of cell branches that reveals the unknown reality of the Chinese Communist Party. “The production crew consistently focused on China from the perspective of ordinary villagers and party members of each branch,” Aratani explains.
REGENERATION: From Bullets to Brotherhood focuses on an Australia-born investment banker turned “gang pastor” in one of Cape Town’s most dangerous townships. “You may know his story from news outlets around the world,” says Aratani. “This documentary features previously unreleased footage shot by the pastor himself, exclusively for NHK.”
Fukushima Monologue, a finalist for the 2021 Jackson Wild Media Awards, tells the story of the one man who chose to stay behind in the no-go zone near the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant. “We are overwhelmed by the beauty of Fukushima and, the next moment, devastated by the reality of the town,” Aratani says.
One of NHK’s most acclaimed factual offerings this year is Hideaki Anno: The Final Challenge of Evangelion, a documentary that follows filmmaker Hideaki Anno during the creative process for the final installment of the legendary Evangelionanime franchise. “Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli describes him as one who sheds blood for his films,” says Afumi Watanabe, chief manager for the content distribution department in the content development center at NHK Enterprises. The documentary was one of the most-watched programs on NHK’s video streaming service after its March broadcast debut.
Hideaki Anno: The Final Challenge of Evangelion has proven very successful on the international market for NHK Enterprises. It has been licensed non-exclusively to Amazon Prime Video and other services.
“NHK has long been known to have a strong selection of human stories that depict ordinary people with positive messages,” Watanabe says, pointing to REGENERATION: From Bullets to Brotherhood and Fukushima Monologue. This also includes The Professional: Garbage as a Calling, a documentary that follows a garbageman who is so devoted to his work, not even the coronavirus deters him. “When the city needed someone to collect garbage from a hospital that had a cluster of Covid-19 cases, he eagerly volunteered,” Watanabe explains. “An NHK crew spent 150 days with him to find out what it takes. His story is so inspiring, he was interviewed by overseas media after NHK’s broadcast.”
In terms of factual acquisitions, NHK has three dedicated slots for these global stories. Some of the titles that have performed well with its audiences include RBG, from Storyville Films, Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films; Inside the Mind of Agatha Christie, from Knickerbockerglory; On Thin Ice, from Altayfilm; and Britain in Colour, from Arrow Media and Smithsonian Networks.
“Women’s stories, global environmental issues and history from new angles work quite well,” adds Aratani. “Anniversary years are also strong points to highlight,” with The Mole and The Diana Interview: Revenge of a Princess drawing considerable attention.
“We are quite open about genre and style,” Aratani says. “Also, we try to be as flexible as possible so that our audience can sense global trends and the timeliness of stories.” The October broadcast schedule includes BBC Studios’ Vaccine: The Inside Story, alongside In Search of Monsters.
NHK has made considerable investments in 8K programming, becoming a pioneer in this cutting-edge area. “Creating new broadcast technologies and services is an important mission for a public media organization such as NHK,” says Hakuno Takahiko, 8K channel controller at NHK. “One of NHK’s major achievements is our 8K satellite channel (the first in the world), which we launched in 2018. Notably, we devoted great efforts to deliver the highest possible level of broadcast services for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games this year. Within the constraints imposed by the one-year postponement and the absence of spectators at venues, we broadcast 210 hours during the Olympics and 90 hours during the Paralympics, enabling a lot of people to enjoy live sports in ultra-high definition.”
“The coronavirus pandemic has imposed constraints on the lives of viewers, but it has also enabled people to rediscover the greatest advantage of 8K programs: a degree of realism that gives viewers the sense that the things they’re watching are actually right there in front of them,” Takahiko continues.
In the area of entertainment, NHK has done live broadcasts of concerts by the NHK Symphony Orchestra and prerecorded broadcasts of musicals. It also aired an arts documentary series called Fresh Encounters with Our Cultural Heritage. This program originated from NHK’s cross-sector collaboration with the Tokyo National Museum. It all started in March 2020, when a national treasure Buddha from the 7th century was transported to Tokyo to be exhibited for the first time in 23 years. NHK took this opportunity to test a newly developed imaging technology called photogrammetry. The statue was scanned using lasers to acquire highly precise data on its shape, color and texture. The system converted the data into UHD 3D CG images, enabling the statue to be shown in hyper-real definition with more detail than could ever be seen with the naked eye and from any angle. Due to the pandemic, the exhibition of the statue had to be canceled. Turning adversity into opportunity, NHK thought it could use its new 3D CG technology to create a new kind of exhibition.
“Galleries in Japan and overseas can hold exhibitions simultaneously by sharing the same digital replica,” Takahiko says. “Also, researchers around the world can investigate the same treasure together. The production team’s dream is to facilitate cultural communion all around the world using 8K technology.”
NHK is already busy producing 8K content for broadcast next year. The Beijing Winter Olympics will be held in February, and in the area of nature programming, it plans to air The Mating Game, a co-production with Silverback Films in the U.K. “This is an epic series that gives an amazingly detailed, colorful depiction of the ways in which animals face their greatest challenge: finding a mate,” Takahiko says.
See NHK Enterprises’ Fall 2021 Showcase here.