Pop Goes the Library

Using Pop Culture to Make Libraries Better.

by Sophie Brookover, Liz Burns, Melissa Rabey, Susan Quinn, John Klima, Carlie Webber, Karen Corday, and Eli Neiburger. We're librarians. We're pop culture mavens. We're Pop Culture Librarians.


Ganbare! Irresistable Japanese TV on G4

G4 is a cable channel owned and operated by Comcast intended for gamers. It was formed out of the smoldering wreckage of Comcast's purchase and subsequent dismantling of the once-venerable TechTV channel that resulted in the banishment of legitimately knowledgeable on-air personalities like Leo LaPorte to the world of podcasting (which he says should be called Netcasting).

If you have Comcast and have ever tried to watch G4, you may have discovered that it's crappy. The on-air personalities are clueless bimbos of both genders and their attempts to be edgy, informative or entertaining fall flat every time. As usual, Penny Arcade nails it. A teleprompter does not make one a gamer. Can you tell I have strong feelings about the issue? G4 stinks.

Except for one thing. Well, two things. G4 has acquired and localized a few Japanese shows that are so mind-bendingly awesome that they almost make up for all the other dreck on the channel. Almost. Ninja Warrior and Unbeatable Banzuke are simply two of the most entertaining, gripping, and unmissable shows on TV.

G4's Ninja Warrior is made of two japanese shows based around a brutal, ever-changing 4-stage obstacle course. Sasuke is the men's version, and Kunoichi is the women's version. In Japan, Sasuke happens twice a year, in midsummer and at new year's, to be broadcast between Japan's two seasons of new episodes of television drama. Both Sasuke and Kunoichi start with 100 competitors, some serious, and some ridiculous. The gamut runs from steelworkers to acrobats to businessmen to movie stars to olympians to comedians to sumo wrestlers to the guy who works at the curry shop. Each field of competitors usually includes some Gaijin, including Sasuke regulars and US olympic medalists Paul and Morgan Hamm, Track star Paul Terek, and Bulgarian gymnast Jordan Yovtchev.

Sasuke has happened 20 times so far, and only twice has a competitor managed to complete all 4 stages: Crab Fisherman Kazuhiko Akiyama and Fishing Boat Captain Makoto Nagano. Kunoichi, which focuses more on astounding feats of balance than Sasuke's focus on upper body strength and stamina, has been held 8 times and a single competitor, Ayako Miyake, Acrobat and member of the G-Rockets Acrobatic stage troupe, completed the course 3 times in a row, but failed to complete stage 2 on her fourth attempt.

So, yes, this is a show that has had only 3 winners out of some 2700 attempts. A significant number of the competitors are clearly there for comic relief and rarely make it past the first obstacle in a clear homage to the International 80's success of Takeshi's Castle (currently airing in a horrific dubbed incarnation on the Spike channel as MXC), but because many of these hopefuls return year after year, they have a unique scrappy appeal and you can't help rooting for them, especially the 60-year-old proprietor of the Edokko Izakaya, known as Tako-san (The Octopus).

As you can imagine, the drama is intense and the action is irresistable. In Japan, each tournament is shown in one 3-hour show, so G4 repackages each tournament into several half-hour shows. The stage is set by english voiceovers and edited cutaways, but the actual attempts at the course are shown with the Japanese announcers and some (passable) subtitles. Compared to other localizations of japanese shows (cough MXC cough), this is huge step forward, and the excitement and intensity of the Japanese play by play is a big part of the appeal of the show.

Ninja Warrior has been a huge success for G4 and is now one of their flagship products. They've even had contests to find the American Ninja Warrior fans most qualified to compete in the show and have sent two sets of Competitors to Japan to try to hold their own.

Sasuke is just the tip of the iceberg of innovative Japanese athletic competition TV, with no confessionals, infighting, or immunity challenges in sight. Viking was an earlier version of Sasuke that was also show briefly in the US, and other shows such as Monster Box, Junior Sasuke, Sasuke Construction Workers Special, or stage shows like the smash hit Muscle Musical are surely to follow. G4 has been quick to move on another great acquisition that they call Unbeatable Banzuke.

A Banzuke is an old-school broadsheet showing rankings of sumo wrestlers, interpreted here to mean a book of champions. Instead of Sasuke's grueling 4-stage course, Unbeatable Banzuke (again a repackaging of a few different Japanese shows) features over 20 simply incomprehensible events, such as obstacle courses for hand-walking, unicycle, pogo stick, or mountain bike, or pole balanced on two fingers, each with its own field of competitors. Again, some English narration and graphics set the stage and the Japanese play-by-play is subtitled, but the intro and bumpers feature a bluescreened Japanese Sportscaster-looking guy named Kai Kato, speaking Japanese with subtitles, but obviously shot in a studio somewhere in LA and intended only for the US G4 audience. Kai is a very pleasant guy, but I guess the producers felt the show couldn't be successful without some artificial foreignness.

While this stuff is not likely to come to DVD, there is tons of it on youtube, and it is hugely popular with young guys. A Ninja Warrior viewing program or a broader program about Japanese TV could be a very cool event for teens and twenty-somethings, and as the influence of these shows continues to grow, we may see more demand for subtitled japanese shows in our collections.



  • At 10:37 AM, Blogger andrew the a/v guy said…

    Long time reader, first time commenter (always wanted to say that).
    I agree with your comments, I especially miss Leo's TechTV program that I enjoyed with my tech-savvy teen son. We both watch Ninja Warrior & Banzuke, and were commenting just the other day that it's only a matter of time before American TV copies & destroys the concept like they did with "Iron Chef." With the exception of the first season of MXC, which has since degenerated from funny innuendos to crude comments, I wish American TV would just leave Japanese programming alone except for decent translation.
    With the popularity of anime/manga in the public libraries, I'd also agree that would be an interesting library program.

  • At 11:49 AM, Blogger Rachel said…

    We all {heart} Ninja Warrior in this house...

  • At 6:39 AM, Blogger lostinube said…

    Great write up of the stuff on G4. Couple of corrections: VIKING was developed by the makers of SASUKE for a different TV station (Fuji TV as opposed to TBS) well after SASUKE had established itself. VIKING hit American shores earlier but SASUKE is the older show.
    Also, the Monster Box is not a show unto itself but part of the a series of annual contests called Sportsman No. 1. There are two versions of the Sportsman No. 1 show. One is for entertainers only (Geinojin Sportsman No. 1) and one is for pro athletes and the Geinojin winner (Pro Sportsman No. 1, usually broadcast on January 1st).
    When Kinniku Banzuke (Unbeatable Banzuke) and it's successors were on the air, the programs were the hub that SASUKE, KUNOICHI and Sportsman No. 1 revolved around.
    Finally, unfortunately for any Miyake fans, she, the original Muscle Musical producer and a group of Muscle Musical performers have all broken their ties with the Muscle Musical to form their own traveling performing troupe. Since the Muscle Musical is produced by the makers of SASUKE and KUNOICHI, the chances of seeing her competing again are slim.

  • At 8:54 AM, Blogger eli said…

    lostinube, thanks for your awesome comment and corrections! Wikipedia could use you. I saw a video of Svetlana Khorkina attempting the monster box vault in Athens around the time of the olympics that made it look like the vault was the focus of the show.... I think it was the title screen on that video that had made me think that it was a show and not an event on Sportsman No.1. I think Ninja Warrior has called the show 'monster box' in some of their lead-ins as well. Thanks for clearing that up.

    Also, I remember seeing a short outtake on Ninja Warrior of Naoki Iketani winning something by trying to hit a volleyball dropped from a great height from far away. Was that from Sportsman No. 1 as well? And is that also the show that Yuko Mizuno won?

    Thanks again for your comment and sharing your knowledge!

  • At 6:11 PM, Blogger lostinube said…

    No problem. I'm in Japan and I've been watching SASUKE and the Sportsman No. 1 shows for the last six years or so and it's interesting that they're starting to gain popularity in the states. And I actually do edit the wikis from time to time!
    The event you saw Iketani winning was indeed another contest from Sportsman No.1 called the Shot-Gun Touch.
    I haven't seen it (or maybe I have but don't remember) but I believe Yuko Mizuno won a ladies version of the Sportsman No. 1 called the Queen's Challenge.


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