I’m starting to think no nation on Earth understands the Idiot Box better than Japan. Granted, we only see the tiniest sliver of Japanese programming here in America. But every minute of it just makes me want to consume more. Sure, there are probably plenty of boring news shows and the like in Tokyo, but I imagine prime time there to be a wonderland of frantic anime, hilarious commercials involving American celebrities and inscrutable game shows in which contestants are placed in constant mortal danger.
Praise be to G4 and their nightly “Dutyfree TV” block, then, for fueling my myopic view of Asian pop culture. Amid the awesomeness of “Ninja Warrior” and the snarky silliness of “Super Big Product Fun Show” lies new fave “Unbeatable Banzuke.”
“Unbeatable Banzuke” (known in its homeland as “Kinniku Banzuke”) is actually the show that inspired “Ninja Warrior” (née: “Sasuke”). It ran in Japan from 1995 to 2002, and we have G4 to thank for digging it out of the overseas archives and presenting it in all its televisual glory. The minimalist show pits amateur and professional athletes against one another in a fiendish series of obstacle courses. In America, TV game show skill involves telling Howie Mandel whether you want briefcase No. 7 or briefcase No. 10. In Japan, skill is measured by whether or not you can navigate a pogo stick over a swaying wooden bridge without plunging, headfirst, into the water below.
The Japanese don’t like to make it easy on competitors. It’s rare that anyone ever survives to the end of a Japanese game show. (Since 1997, only two guys have ever completed the final stage of “Ninja Warrior.”) If they do, they win ... great respect! (Take that, you lazy, greedy Americans.) “Banzuke” actually went off the air in 2002 not because of low ratings, but because two competitors were were seriously injured during the taping of a single show.
Though not as physically unforgiving as “Ninja Warrior,” “Unbeatable Banzuke” does feature a number of different obstacle courses and several categories of athletes. Some of the “athletes” are questionable. (I’m not too sure stilt-walking counts as a sport, either professional or amateur.) While it’s entertaining watching people try to navigate a water hazard while doing a handstand, “Unbeatable Banzuke” gets most interesting when testing more conventional athletic skills. Sending extreme BMX bikers, for example, bunny-hopping over a mountain of wooden cable spools is a wicked test of skills. It’s a short gap between that and making pro wrestlers grapple with bears, I realize--but a viewer can dream, can’t he?
In fact, “Unbeatable Banzuke” is simply screaming for an American remake. How about punishing roid-raging, rule-breaking pro athletes with a stint on “American Banzuke”? Instead of banishing Mike Tyson from his sport of choice, make him box a robot. Or make Roger Clemens run the bases with an infield full of rabid chimps. That way, everybody wins!