Newest Japanese Import: Game Shows ABC debuts I Survived a Japanese Game Showand Wipeout. To truly understand Japanese game shows, you just need to understand two words: absurdity and pain.
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Newest Japanese Import: Game Shows

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Newest Japanese Import: Game Shows

Newest Japanese Import: Game Shows

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Tonight, ABC debuts two new shows, one called "I Survived a Japanese Game Show," the other called "Wipeout," finally bringing to the airwaves the complete absurdity of Japanese game shows we've been enjoying for years on YouTube. Here's part of an ad for "I Survived a Japanese Game Show."

(Soundbite of TV commercial "I Survived a Japanese Game Show")

Unidentified Man #1: Ten Americans will meet in L.A. for what they think is a typical game show, but they're in for a big surprise!

Unidentified Man #2: We're going to Japan.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man #1: And they have no idea what's in store!

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Unidentified Man #3: Now, they're contestants on the most outrageous game show you've ever seen. They'll play games like Big Bugs Splat on Windshield...


MARTIN: Big Bugs Splat on Windshield? Really, they get dressed up like bugs, and they throw themselves against this Velcro, it's funny, even if you don't find the conceit of the shows entertaining. Seriously, the pure absurdity of some of the challenges like aforementioned will have you laughing out loud. But will broader American TV audiences appreciate the beauty and bizarreness of these shows? Joining now us Gavin Purcell, blogger behind TV in Japan and a TV producer himself for the G4 Network. Hey, Gavin.

Mr. GAVIN PURCELL (Blogger, TV In Japan; Producer, G4 Network): Hey. How's it going?

MARTIN: It goes well. Thanks for being here. So for people who have not had the pleasure of watching Japanese game shows, explain what you, Gavin, find to be so personally captivating about them.

Mr. PURCELL: It's hard to kind of encapsulate it in just a few words. I think that the two most important words are like you said, absurdity and pain. I think a lot of it involves very strange, very weird things that you wouldn't imagine people putting themselves in the position of. And then, of course, people hurting themselves, which I think, you know, has a lot to do with both high and low humor in a lot of different people's opinions.

MARTIN: I have to say - so I lived in Japan for a little while after college. And when I first arrived, I would occasionally turn on the TV. And at first, those shows totally frightened me to death. I mean, there's all kinds of lights, and all the personalities are really frenetic, and they were all kind of laughing at what appeared to be really bizarre stuff. And then, honestly, I could not stop watching them. They became totally mesmerizing. There's just something about them that draws you in. I mean, part of it is that if you don't speak Japanese, you don't get what's going on, some of the nuance, and maybe that's funny.

Mr. PURCELL: Yeah. I think it's weird because I've been blogging Japanese TV for the last two years, and I don't speak Japanese. I think part of the appeal to me is just how absurd the whole thing is without knowing what's going on. And I might think it would be even stranger, or maybe less strange, if I knew what was going on. But it will be interesting to see how that translates to America, because I think part of what I really appreciate about it, and you know, I just like how weird it is, and I don't know if it's going to play in the mainstream as much, you know, in the middle-of-America type of people.

PESCA: Tell me about...

Mr. PURCELL: Who knows? You know what I mean? It could be one of the biggest breakout hits ever. That's the thing about reality TV is like I never feel like anybody ever has any ideas like what's going to get cancelled.

MARTIN: Yeah. You never know what's going to stick, like a bug on a windshield.

PESCA: I was going to say nuanced. Tell me about all this Eugene Ionesco-esque nuance I've been missing. It doesn't seem like I'm missing too much. The guy goes splat on the windshield, universal.

MARTIN: It's not just that. There are all kinds of layers, which was going to be my next question. You alluded to it earlier, Gavin, the whole idea of physical humor and pain. There's a lot of humiliation, public humiliation, that's involved in these games. Dressing up in costumers - I mean, in one show, if you screw up, if you don't shut the Tutommy door all the way closed, then this crazy woman comes up and breathes some really bad stuff into your face.

Mr. PURCELL: Yeah. This is great. The woman is dressed up like a giant bagra (ph).


Mr. PURCELL: Yeah. Well, I think the interesting thing about it - I mean, this is - I taught English in Seoul for a year when I was right out of college, which is obviously not Japan, but Korea, but then I also said - I had been there, you know, probably about a half dozen times to Japan, and I think it's interesting. I think physical punishment is an interesting thing. It's much different there than it is here. When I was in Korea, this was ten years ago, they still had it in our schools and things like that, so I think there's more of an acceptance of it. So I think that's part of it.

But I also think a big part of it just has to do with when you - yeah, there's this sense of being humiliated in front of an audience kind of is something that everybody goes through. It's like this very kind of communal thing, I think, which makes it interesting and much less of a big deal. I'm really interested to see how that works and plays with Americans, especially how they deal with it on a game show itself, because I think that when you watch Japanese people get hurt, it's almost like fun to watch them get hurt because they like are OK with it, and they think it's cool and that...

MARTIN: Even though we might be cringing because, yeah.

Mr. PURCELL: Exactly, and I think Americans tend to turn more angry when they get hurt. And it will be interesting to see like what the people's reaction of the game show is because a lot of the best part is about these guys getting hurt - there's a great series, I'm sure you guys have seen - your listeners have seen, the "Do Not Laugh" series, which is basically a bunch of Japanese comedians who say, you know, they get all into a big room and the whole conceit of the thing is they can't laugh, but they have...

MARTIN: Wait, is this when they're in the library?

Mr. PURCELL: Yes. Exactly.

MARTIN: Oh my gosh!

Mr. PURCELL: It's a long series. It's the one in the library. There's another one that's a really great one that's taught in the ESL classroom where they all basically, you know, they can't laugh and if they start to laugh, somebody will come in patent leather and beat them with a stick. And it just doesn't seem like a funny thing at all when I describe it, but when you watch it online, it's amazing and hilarious, because these guys are all laughing at the other guys getting hurt. And it's this kind of group understanding that being hurt is an OK thing as long as you can get passed it.

MARTIN: And also the whole infrastructure - the whole rules, like, it's set up - the framework of the game is around these societal rules. Like, you don't laugh in a library, but by the way, it's a fake library.

Mr. PURCELL; Exactly.

MARTIN: Right? Like, it's not a real library.

Mr. PURCELL: Exactly. No, totally, and I think that's something that there's a much stronger rule set there which, again, it will be interesting to see how big the difference is between what we have to deal with here.

MARTIN: What do you think about these two shows debuting tonight? You know anything about them? I mean, on the first - on one of them, the contestants actually go to Japan, take part in a real Japanese show.

Mr. PURCELL: Yeah. I know a fair amount about them. I mean, it's interesting. "Wipeout," I think, is a show that we've seen before. I mean, I don't know how familiar you are - I'm a producer at G4 and there's a show called "Ninja Warrior," which I think is a very similar type of show. It comes from Japan originally. It was called "Sasuke" over there, and I think it's very similar and in my mind a little bit better just because it's more pure in some ways.

It has actual Japanese people that are the contestants. It feels more like real, whereas the "Wipeout" feels kind of like a fake version of that, but it's still cool. I mean, it's much more of a physical challenge kind of "Double Dare" type of show, I think, in that way. The other one seems more interesting. What I'm not sure about, because I haven't seen an episode because it doesn't seem like they've released one in advance, but...

MARTIN: The other one being the show where the people actually go to Japan and take part in that.

Mr. PURCELL: Yeah. Where they actually go to the Japanese game show and what's interesting about that is it's weird how they've kind of couched it like a documentary, which I think is probably a safety net for them so that they don't get stuck with having to produce this kind of wacky game show week after week after week...

MARTIN: In case it's not funny, yeah.

Mr. PURCELL: Is coming up with new and interesting things to do that will kind of keep people titillated because, I think, a large part of these Japanese game shows is turn. I mean, they just come up with new stuff all the time, and it's not easy to surprise people. I think that that's the hardest thing. You know, you think about it, we see all these clips, but these are years, and years, and years of these shows that have been on that pop up online, and you know, every year these guys come up with new stuff, and sometimes the stuff just doesn't work.

PESCA: Gavin, I have a really quick question for you. You mentioned you produce "Ninja Warrior"?

Mr. PURCELL: No. I'm one of the people who works at the network with "Ninja Warrior." Yeah. I actually am the producer of a show called "Attack of the Show."

PESCA: Well, very quickly, my question about "Ninja Warrior." Is that redundant or are there ninja florists and ninja mental health professionals?

Mr. PURCELL: You could try it. There's ninja everything.

PESCA: OK. So to be a ninja one needn't be a warrior.

Mr. PURCELL: You don't necessarily, no.

PESCA: OK. I understand. Thank you. Great. Thanks for settling that.

MARTIN: Hey, Gavin Purcell is the blogger behind TV in Japan and a fan of Japanese game shows, as am I. Hey, Gavin, thanks for being here.

Mr. PURCELL: Thanks so much. It was great.

MARTIN: Take care.

Mr. PURCELL: OK. Bye-bye.

PESCA: Could we pat our staff on the back for not playing "Turning Japanese" during that segment, a cliche choice?

MARTIN: Good job, guys.

PESCA: Yeah. Yeah. And some other music that you won't be hearing - well, let's talk about what you will be hearing, Ry Cooder, Sigur Ros, Three 6 Mafia, as we talk about New Music Tuesday on the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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