All the ethical hand-wringing that has accompanied America's fascination with "reality" television is just about as gross as the bowl of cheese maggots that dude spit up on "Fear Factor." The constant howls and moans of "pundits" pondering the fate of "quality television" (the ultimate oxymoron) has nearly eclipsed the very real fact that television -- "reality" or not -- is designed solely for our entertainment while we're being sold soap and tampons. The people that hold up "Frasier" and "Seinfeld" as cultural accomplishments have no room to dismiss anything as "insubstantial." If it's entertaining, it's quality television. And nothing is more entertaining than watching people suffer.
Japan is delightfully unburdened by such nonsense. Living in a country with a fantastically deep cultural history, the Japanese know crap when they see it. And when they see it, they go ape-shit for it and are richly rewarded with a diet of television that's inane to the point of insanity. A day on Japanese TV is the buzzing drone of newscasts and chirping talk shows, punctuated occasionally by the aggressively bright hues of kids' programming that makes "Teletubbies" look positively intellectual. A night on Japanese TV, however, is an entirely different story. For it's then that the hyperbizarre game shows take over, elevating the entertainment of competitiveness to bloodlust levels.
For a people so consumed with modesty and propriety, the lengths that contestants go to for a brief moment on television (and, typically, prizes that wouldn't get an American excited enough to get off the couch) are somewhat out of character. Nonetheless, it's not too hard to find couples willing to spend months apart from one another, individuals subjecting themselves to various physical humiliations and fools brave enough to take on the obstacle course at "Takeshi's Castle."
At one time the most popular television show in Japan (it's been off the air for nearly a decade), "Takeshi's Castle" was hosted by "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, a well-revered actor and director. That Kitano's movies tip toward the violent end of the scale ("Battle Royale" is so over-the-top, it's yet to find an American distributor) shouldn't be that surprising. Because "Takeshi's Castle" is that show. You know, the one that always gets highlighted on those Wacky "Television From Around the World shows. The one that briefly makes you think that America isn't the most pathological nation on the planet. The one the Simpsons wound up on when they got trapped in Japan. The one that makes you say, "Damn! Why is that guy dressed like a shark trying to pole vault across a pond?"
Now, finally, the American reality show craze has swept "Takeshi's Castle" up on our shores. With the June 16 relaunching of TNN (or, The New TNN or, the old Nashville Network) as Spike TV, the network's attempt to create the "first network for men" somehow came up a little short on male-oriented programming. Believe it or not, there apparently aren't enough episodes of "Star Trek" or enough hours of wrestling to fill an entire programming slate. Now dubbed "Most Extreme Elimination Challenge" (I guess so people didn't think they'd be watching a Miyazaki cartoon), it's been stuck in the unenviable time slot of 9 p.m. Saturday nights. And even though you won't be home, it's worth setting your TiVo for.
American production company R.C. Entertainment took the original episodes of "Takeshi's Castle" and -- "Iron Chef"-style -- dubbed in English commentary. Unfortu-nately, unlike the hilariously straightforward translations that make "Iron Chef" such a joy, the geniuses at R.C. burden the comments with puerile humor and ridiculous double entendres. Giving all the contestants "American" names and going through the trouble of trying to generate interest in the actual competition only bogs things down further. We don't care who wins, and we don't want to hear grade-school dick jokes. We want to see people get crushed by papier-m&acric;ché boulders and fall 10 feet into the water after bashing their face on "the rotating surfboard of death."
Thankfully, those things are all in copious supply. Each episode has two teams face off, eliminating individual members through various bizarre physical challenges. Somehow, one team or another wins, but that doesn't matter. What does matter are the challenges. My personal favorite has been dubbed "Plank Spankers" by the American production company. Two contestants cross a pond via centrally balanced planks (think a sideways seesaw) without falling in the water. This means they must both hit each plank at exactly the same time and with exactly the same force and quickly move to the next, at exactly the same time and with exactly the same force. This almost never happens. Instead, we're treated to the slower of the two being bashed in the face with the upward-rocketing force of the plank launched by their faster partner's weight. It's beautiful.
Almost as entertaining are challenges like "Brass Balls" -- a contestant must balance on a tiny rope bridge while holding a volleyball, and tennis balls are launched at them via air cannon. Then there's "Wall Bugger," in which individuals swing -- willingly -- into an adhesive-coated wall at precisely the right angle, causing them to stick (typically, they crash face-first into the wall and collapse into a heap in the pond below); and "Door Slammer" finds a crush of contestants plowing through walls of doors at top speed, only to find that, occasionally, a door doesn't open and they're rendered unconscious by the impact. Not a goddamn bit of intellectually redeeming material here, but it sure is fun to watch people beat the crap out of themselves.
It's really unfortunate that the production company had to ham up "Most Extreme Elimination Challenge," because it's evident that the show would be monstrously entertaining with no commentary at all. Self-abuse is funny in any language, after all. Apparently, "Takeshi's Castle" is shown with straightforward translations on the UK-based Challenge TV network (a sort of pumped-up Game Show Network, they also show the "Takeshi's" takeoff "Fort Boyard" and "Gladiators" alongside reruns of "Wheel of Fortune"). But even with the clumsy dumbness Most Extreme forces on its viewers, it's nonetheless the most shamelessly entertaining show on television. Cutting right to our passion for human humiliation, we may finally be catching up to the Japanese after all.