Monday, August 31, 2009

An attempt at mental re-alignment

Before I left Japan, one of my friends (Hi, Jonny!) lamented with me the fact that it was unfortunate that my last memories of Japan would be my last experiences in Japan...

The previous sentence makes sense. Really.

Anyway, I figure that in order to dispel some of that aura, I should try to recall some of the more entertaining moments of the past eight or so years.

At Kamiichiki Junior High School, the smaller of the two junior highs I regularly visited in Kagoshima, I usually sat next to the math teacher in the staff room. Now he was a Gundam otaku; his desk was covered with various Gundam figurines and toys, as was the shelving unit behind him.

Now, when I started teaching there, I was unsure how to talk to anyone, due to both my limited Japanese language ability, and lack of cultural references. But I was a fan of anime -- a shared interest.

So, one day, I arrived and set up THIS on my desk:

Everyone in the staff room at that time laughed, and most gave me various "thumbs-up" signals. When the Math teacher came back from class, he stared at my desk, dumbfounded.

After a few moments of concentration, he correctly identified the TV series (Chou Jikuu Yousai Macross), the type of mecha it was (Valkyrie), and even the pilot (Ichijou Hikaru).

We got along famously after that.

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Sunday, August 09, 2009

There's nothing original on American TV anymore

Last week, I watched the two-hour finale to this year's installment of "I Survived a Japanese Game Show!"

I had heard about this while I was still in Japan, and in fact a friend of mine sent me copies of the first-season shows, which I never got around to watching, alas. (Considering the fact that I could watch real Japanese game shows whenever I wanted to...)

After I got back, I watched a few episodes with that same friend (thank goodness for DVRs), and although I did enjoy what I saw, a lot of the show...didn't really ring true to me. It seemed like they were really overplaying the stereotypes, e.g. high-pitched female voice announcing "Game START" and "Game SHURYO!" in very stilted, artificial fashion, all sorts of Asian/dragon decorations (I do believe that the elaborate dragon motifs are Chinese in origin), random Japanese characters flying about, etc.

Actually, a lot of the Japanese they flash up on screen isn't random at all; the translations of game names are usually accurate enough. The Japanese title that flashes up before the English phrase "Japanese Game Show" is "ム番組を生還したぞ", which translates as "I returned alive from a (TV) program", although that "ム" at the beginning confuses me mightily. (It's like a random letter out of nowhere; "QThe Price is Right") However, sometimes, it's like they chose the Japanese to "look good." For example, when the word SAYONARA pops up in English letters, the Japanese phrase above it is something like "the loser has been chosen."

MAJIDE, the "Japanese Game Show" which the contestants survive, is not in fact an actual Japanese television show. The host, Rome Kanda, is not a host on Japanese TV; he has lived and worked in the U.S. for the last ten years. It's always amusing to hear the contestants and the host talk about how they're now "famous in Japan" when in fact no one outside of the (paid?) audience at Toho Studios knows who they are. Watch the reactions of the passers-by in the second-to-last event, "Let's make new friends in Japan!" One of the rewards in that last episode was a guest appearance on Zoom-in!! SUPER, a (real) morning show on NTV. I found myself wondering if that segment even aired -- the hosts were also going on about how the (final two) contestants were FAMOUS.

The various games portrayed on the show are known as "batsu games", or "punishment games", and although in the past some Japanese game shows did have "humiliate the losers" segments (think MXC/Takeshi's Castle), these stopped being popular even before I got there in 2001. These days, one sees "batsu games" inflicted on minor celebrities ("tarento") in TV variety shows. (The show "DOWNTOWN" leaps to mind...) Even back when they were popular, they weren't the basis for entire programs, I think.

Also, current Japanese game shows -- even the ones not using tarento as contestants -- don't have a single set of contestants lasting through an entire season. "Tokyo Friends Park 2", "Neptune League", "IQ Supli" (that last does have batsu games, although they're generally of the "drink this foul tasting wheat grass shot" variety"), Quiz Millionaire (and yes, that's probably exactly what you think it is), etc.

So YES, it's entertaining, but NO, it's not an accurate view of Japanese culture. Or even Japanese game shows.

(Amusing moment: On the final episode, they had clips of a celebration party for the final two contestants, in a big, BIG auditorium. Rome Kanda introduced Yuriko Koike, first female Minister of Defense, to present them with a commemorative plaque. Later, one of the final two gushed, "The first female Minister of Defense, she's like a GOD!" Note that Kanda didn't mention that Ms. Koike held this position back in 2007, and didn't last two months...)

Another newish ABC show is more directly based on a Japanese program -- WIPEOUT. The Japanese version that I've seen is called SASUKE, which has much more challenging obstacle courses...but you have to be a fit athlete to participate. It's a fun show to watch, in that whole "Oh my god I could never ever do this" sense. The original SASUKE can sometimes be seen on G4 in dubbed and subtitled form...

WIPEOUT, on the other hand, is fun because you're seeing ordinary people surmount nigh-impossible (for ordinary people) obstacles. I swear, the "big balls" obstacle is designed to make EVERYBODY fall in the water. In this way, it's more like Takeshi's Castle, the original basis for MXC on Spike TV -- so much so, that Tokyo Broadcasting System (owners of Takeshi's Castle, co-owners of MXC) filed a copyright infringment suit last year.

New York Times article on both "I Survived a Japanese Game Show" and "Wipeout" (perhaps registration required?)
néojaponisme blog post on "I survived..." criticizing how it's portrayed as actual Japanese TV

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