The NHK Tokushu documentary series The Silk Road began on April 7, 1980. The program started with the memorable scene of a camel caravan crossing the desert against the setting sun. Kitaro’s music imparted a sense of timelessness, and actor Ishizaka Koji’s resonant narration began with the phrase, “The Silk Road begins in Chang’an and ends in Chang’an.” NHK Tokushu broadcast this series over 10 years. It was the start of an epic televisual poem.
The first journey described in the series began in Chang’an (now Xi’an), at the eastern end of the ancient route. On 450,000 feet of film, the NHK crew recorded the path westward to the Pamir Heights at the Pakistan border and this material was edited to make 12 monthly broadcasts. The program gradually revealed how ancient Japan was influenced by the other cultures along the Silk Road.
Seven years in the planning
Back then, it was generally thought to be impossible for TV cameras to penetrate the remotest regions of the Silk Road. But seven years of planning and negotiation overcame the various obstacles.
In September 1972, an NHK director was in Beijing for the TV relay of Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei’s visit to China. The day after diplomatic relations between the two countries were restored, Chinese Premier Chou Enlai invited reporters to a reception at the Great Hall of the People. In a speech to them, the premier stated that China and Japan were no longer at war and asked for their support in introducing China to the rest of the world. He told them that this was their duty as journalists.
The director recalled how the Han and T’ang dynasties were eras of great cultural transfer to China, how China had accepted the cultures of many lands and made itself the most prosperous country. The Silk Road was the medium that made this phenomenon possible. He felt The Silk Road could be a TV program that responded to the hopes of the Chinese premier.
A broadcaster’s dream
The executives of NHK’s General Broadcasting Administration strongly supported this idea. Gaining access, however, was a problem. In a previous program, the camera crews for Legacy for the Future (1974-75) had not been able to enter the Silk Road region.
How were China’s doors to be opened? Various negotiating routes were available, and the breakthrough came at the end of October 1978, with Deputy-Premier Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Japan. The program director boarded the special train on which Deng was traveling and managed to talk to his secretary, passing on NHK’s request to shoot scenes in the Silk Road region. On New Year’s Eve, permission was granted and the enormous joint project began.
Seventeen years after the program was conceived, the project was completed. Writer Shiba Ryotaro described The Silk Road series as “the most fruitful Sino-Japanese cultural exchange in postwar history.”