An interesting phenomenon in the video wasteland is the direct importation of television shows to the U.S. I enjoy foreign shows that come to us without filtering or reworking into an American form, as they provide a window on interesting aspects of other cultures. We’ve gotten this in a limited fashion for years with the occasional anime or subtitled foreign film, but it seems to me that it’s becoming a lot more mainstream.

The game show has a long history on American television, but it’s most frequently involved tests of mental agility or dumb luck…What’s My Line, Jeopardy, Let’s Make a Deal, The Newlywed Game, the list goes on. Some recent offerings have provided more physical challenges, but they’ve always seemed “do-able.” Your average couch spud could watch the action on shows like Fear Factor, The Amazing Race, or Survivor with a beer in one hand and a handful of cheetos in the other and think to himself, “Yeah, I could do that.”

Enter the new breed of game shows from Japan. Feats of physical strength, endurance, and coordination are on center stage in offerings like Ninja Warrior and The Unbeatable Banzuke (each retitled for the US market, but otherwise unchanged; and subtitled, not dubbed into English), but the competitors face obstacles that are very nearly unconquerable. Episodes frequently chronicle an hour’s worth of abject failure, with no successes. The obstacle course becomes a player in its own right, its insurmountability celebrated as much as those few champions who manage to overcome it. When some intrepid Superman-san does defeat the course, it’s immediately redesigned to make it even harder than before. I’ve seen up to nine revisions of a course that proved too easy to satisfy the need for virtual invincibility.

I’m not sure what this says about Japanese culture. Maybe it’s just a tribute to the truly exceptional among us. Perhaps it’s a parable about the indominability of the human spirit, the impulse to throw oneself at an impossible obstacle again and again until the path to overcoming it is discovered. Maybe they just like watching people fall face-first into a pond of scummy stagnant water.

I’m not sure what it says about me that I love these shows. I sit on my couch with a root beer in one hand and a handful of wheat thins in the other and think to myself, “There’s no way in this or any other universe I could ever do that.”


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