When, oh when, will America learn the valuable lesson imparted to us by Japanese game shows? While America blindly accepts and even celebrates dull crap like “Deal or No Deal” (the TV equivalent of Keno), Japan pumps out inexplicably brilliant game shows that simultaneously puzzle, terrify and delight. We get “pick a number between 1 and 26” and they get “Fear Factor” crossed with “Super Sloppy Double Dare” and a random Bollywood musical.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the majority of American TV viewers are irredeemably stupid and lazy and don’t much like seeing people who are smarter and less lazy than them. How else to explain the runaway success of a show like “Deal or No Deal,” which rewards no measurable skill, strength or attribute? The show is a random guessing game separated only from that annoying one your grandfather used to play with two closed fists and a quarter by the addition of Howie Mandel and a bunch of vapid models. Why can’t we have more game shows in which people dress in ridiculous costumes, jump into live volcanos, get beaten with giant flowers by scantily clad bikini girls and otherwise suffer bizarre humiliation on television for little or no reward? The Mexicans do. The Japanese do. I’m willing to bet dollars to doughnuts the Russians do, too.
The latest proof that American TV isn’t as cool as it should be comes in the form of G4 network’s “Ninja Warriors,” a late-night game show imported from the Land of the Rising Sun. “Ninja Warriors” (known as “Sasuke” in its native land) has been a sensation in Japan since 1997. Here’s how it works: Twice a year, 100 hopefuls arrive on a mountaintop in rural Japan to challenge the world’s strangest and toughest obstacle course. Contestants fall roughly into three categories: professionals (wrestlers, gymnasts, martial artists), amateurs (garbage men, firemen, boat captains) and “comic relief” (comedians, beauty queens, jugglers).
In almost 20 years, only one contestant has ever actually completed all four stages of the course to win the championship. Can you imagine an American game show that no one wins? Americans thrive on competition. They love to beat people. They favor clear-cut results. The Japanese, on the other hand, don’t. Believe it or not, the nigh-impossibility is what makes “Ninja Warrior” so damn addictive.
Typically, 90 percent of contestants are defeated in the show’s first round. Very quickly, the show becomes not about beating other contestants, but about conquering that seemingly insurmountable obstacle course. As contestants plummet one after another from an inexhaustible array of monkey bars, trampoline jumps, trapeze swings and revolving hurdles, the remaining players can only commiserate. While the first round provides a touch of humor (as a parade of wacky Japanese comedians tumbles into the numerous pools of muddy water below), the progressively tougher second and third stages offer up some nail-biting suspense.
Do yourself a favor, turn Japanese and check out “Ninja Warrior.” And don’t be surprised to hear yourself shouting, “Hang on, Bunpei, just one more inch to go!”