‘The Mating Game’: NHK’s 8K nature series is beautifully voyeuristic

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When I first heard that NHK was airing a show called “The Mating Game,” I assumed it was the national broadcaster’s answer to “Terrace House” — a beautifully shot voyeuristic look into the lives of young couples.

And in many ways I was right, except that, in “The Mating Game,” the human subjects have been replaced with infinitely more interesting specimens from the animal world.

Co-produced with Silverback Films, the U.K.-based studio behind David Attenborough’s “Planet Earth” series, “The Mating Game” (“Koi Suru Ikimono-tachi no Chosen,” in Japanese) follows the intricate, elegant and frequently deceptive courting rituals of 80 species in 22 different countries. It is also the first natural history series to be shot entirely in 8K.

“Grasslands,” the first of five episodes in the series, opens on a group of ostriches, almost 2½-meters tall and silhouetted against the arid backdrop of the Namibian savannah. As with any natural history documentary that Silverback Films is involved in, each shot brings to life the glorious detail of the scene, while also demonstrating the studio’s uncanny knack of being in exactly the right place at the right time to film the most intimate and unexpected of animal behaviors.

In an effort to woo one of the females, a gangly male ostrich takes to his knees and begins a surprisingly graceful courtship dance, swaying from side to side in an attempt to impress his would-be mate. Ultimately successful, the documentary pulls no punches in showing the intricacies of what follows, with little detail lost in the 8K format.

What makes the series even more impressive is that large parts of it were filmed throughout the pandemic.

“We had to cancel shoots in 18 locations,” says Taishi Inoue, one of the program directors, who filmed on location in the Dominican Republic and Kenya. “And we had to follow a detailed list of protocols to make sure that everything was filmed safely.”

“The Mating Game” is still rich in footage — from stunning aerials of zebra herds as they march across the savannah to extreme close-ups of a termite queen giving birth to thousands of larvae in quick succession, and jacked kangaroos fighting each other like testosterone junkies at a gym. At one point a “cross-dressing” bird enters the scene, disguising itself as the female of its species in order to outwit its male competitors.

Where the upgrade from 4K to 8K seems most noticeable is in the close-ups, as the skin of an animal ripples in its daily labors, or the air shimmers around it in the heat of the midday sun. The interplay of light across various natural surfaces — golden hour through dew-covered stalks of grass, the dim tunnels of an underground termite lair — all benefit from the upgrade in resolution.

“I think the depth of the image is totally different when compared with 2K and 4K,” says Inoue. “And the color is too, you can see the details even in the shadows.”

Ultimately, what really stands out is not the format, instead the sheer variety of the natural world, and the magnificent displays of beauty and cunning, as each species goes about its mating game.

“The Mating Game” premieres in 8K on NHK BS8K on Jan. 16 at 7 p.m. It will air on regular NHK channels later in 2022. For more information, visit https://www4.nhk.or.jp/P7305/ (Japanese only).

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