Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Turning Japanese (We Really Think So)

With the rising popularity of reality TV and the hard times countless Americans face economically, many are looking for that special mix of reality with prizes and money. Enter game shows. Combine them with producers who are tapped out of ideas and America’s natural aesthetic for watching people humiliate and harm themselves, and you’ve got the new fad of Japanese game shows coming to America.

It’s been slowly moving in since the late 1990s when Ninja Warrior first ran on American television. The show is composed of Japanese contestants doing outrageous stunts, and it airs on the cable network G4 weeknights at 9 p.m. (A simulated cartoon game can also be found on the network’s web site.) The winner walks away with the distinguished title of “World’s Greatest Ninja Warrior.”

Next comes Unbeatable Bonzuke, also on G4. This show seems a little tougher, as most challenges are done while the contestants either ride a unicycle or walk on their hands. The show isn’t exactly “unbeatable” since there’s always a winner, but it does make for some interesting “those Japanese people do some crazy stuff” conversations.

Well, the conversations were geared toward the Japanese, until ABC decided to make its own (i.e. American) version of MXC (Most Extreme Elimination Challenge) the Japanese version of ABC's new Wipeout. MXC airs on Spike and, according to, “is a combination of Fear Factor, Jackass and Iron Chef, with a touch of Mystery Science Theater 3000.” (Don't you just love these kinds of helpful descriptions?) The games between the shows are the same (with different names), the hosts mock the contestants as they land in mud and/or disgusting water after falling, and the most painful looking “wipeouts,” of course, are continually replayed. The only difference between the shows is that MXC came first and has only Japanese contestants, while Wipeout is all “American.”

Directly following Wipeout, Tuesdays at 9 p.m., is a show called I Survived a Japanese Game Show. (The title makes it even more obvious that American television is being taken over by Japanese culture, don’t you think?) This show is even more of a mockery than Wipeout as it follows the same group of Americans traveling through Japan, like Chris Farley in the SNL skit above, to compete in the most arbitrary stunts possible. Don’t believe it? Does spinning on a wheel to become dizzy while dressed as a baby, then carrying a bottle of milk to an even bigger bottle and pouring it in, count as weird and mildly disturbing? What about being covered with sticky goo before rolling in feathers, clucking like a chicken, and then sitting on balloons in an effort to pop them like hatching eggs?

So who is responsible for these American versions of Japanese game shows? Well, for that, WB blames… Ellen DeGeneres. Before the “creation” of Wipeout and I Survived a Japanese Game Show, DeGeneres was incorporating Japanese-style games into her talk show. It started with “The Marshmallow Game,” in which audience members put rubber straps around their heads while trying to eat marshmallows hanging from strings... as shown in this mildly — oops, wildly — amusing clip from the Japanese original:

DeGeneres then stepped it up a notch and created her own version of the Japanese game “Human Tetris,” calling it “Through the Wall, Take a Fall.” This game features a Styrofoam wall with cut out shapes that move steadily closer to the contestants. If the contestants don’t shape their bodies the proper way to fit through the wall, they “take a fall” into a pit of balls. Although all contestants win prizes, they’re laughed at throughout the process.

As evident through the laughs, commentary, and ridicule of the contestants on the American shows, and the Japanese ones dubbed in English, Americans take these shows as a joke. We laugh when contestants fall, call them idiots, and swear that people will do anything for money. It’s entertainment for us, but it is serious business for the Japanese, who hold their breath and applaud when a contestant completes a course. Us? We just laugh and hold on to the hope that they’ll fall, just as too many people watched The Crocodile Hunter secretly wishing that Steve Irwin would be attacked by an animal — until it happened, of course.

So, are other cultures watching these shows? Of course they are; American television shows have been in homes all around the world since the technology first came along. If getting the chance to watch Jerry Springer dubbed in Spanish, Japanese, German, or Italian isn’t enough, now people in those countries can watch us dress like chickens and pop balloons with our butts.

God bless J... er, America.

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