"Pilgrimage of A Thousand Days," a Japanese documentary about the art of endurance, is a pretty good test of endurance itself. The 50-minute tape begins a series of five imported programs, "Television from Japan," on Channel 26 at 10 tonight.
"In quest of transcedental truth," the hardest kind to find, a 53-year-old Buddhist monk sets off on a grueling, 1,200-year-old ritual trek in which he will run up and down mountains and chant himself into nirvana over a seven-year period. According to custom, those who do not have the stamina to complete the cycle are expected to do themselves in.
In a rather off-putting way, "Pilgrimage" might serve as a preface to NBC's upcoming and fascinating minseries "Shogun," from James Clavell's novel; the exotic and eccentric culture described by Clavell is being kept alive by the likes of Sakai, the priest whose journey is documented in the program. His devotion to the ascetic life is the stuff of riveting television, but the very patient will still come away from this broadcast knowing more about another culture than they did before. Or they will have a very nice snooze.
Though the program is to a large extent visually monotonous, one of its last images is of a heavenly snowfall in the Hiei mountains, where the monk retreats and fasts for nine days at a time. The old and the new collide at a centuries-old drum-rolling ceremony which a horde of still and movie photographers have invaded.
"Pilgrimmage," like the other programs in this PBS series, was produced by NHK, Japan's version of public television. The artiness of it shouldn't be mistaken as representative of Japanese television generally. As a report on NBC's "Today" made clear this summer, Japanese TV can be just as frivolous and junky as American; wild, extravagant game shows are one specialty. It might be more revealing for PBS to import some of these daily-bread TV shows rather than just film festival entries like "Pilgrimage."
To fill out the 90-minute time slot, "Pilgrimage is followed by a documentary on tea serving in Japan, called "Tea Ceremony." Really. If you were doing a parody of public broadcasting, you couldn't come up with anything more precious, but they aren't kidding.