When I ask many of my non-Japanese friends for their thoughts on Japanese TV there are a few uniform responses:
“It’s so weird!”
“It’s just cookery and panel talk shows!”
“Japanese people have a very loose definition for the term ‘Talent’!”
Of course a lot of Japanese TV is weird, cookery and talking do seem to take up a disproportionate amount of time, and there are plenty of these so called “TV Talents” who are anything but talented.
Nonetheless, Japanese TV has left, and continues to leave a global footprint. Today’s article really is a labour of love for me, as I get to reminisce on some of my all-time favourite TV shows. At the time, I didn’t even realise that they originated from, or were based upon Japanese shows. So join me now as we look at the Top 5 contributions Japan has made to the global TV zeitgeist.
5) Power Rangers:
Photo: Kevin Dooley on Flickr
In late 1993, if you were a child of elementary school age, chances are you, like me, loved this show. The Power Rangers started out as an ultra-low budget kids’ show in September of 1993. The show was as famous for its atrocious acting as it was for its spectacular martial arts stunts and swordplay. For about 2 years in the mid 90s it seemed like every boy in the playground wanted to be the Red Ranger, and every girl wanted to be the Pink Ranger. For me. It was all about the Green Ranger. From time to time I still find myself whistling the tune he played every episode on his mystical weapon/flute, the Dragon Dagger.
From extremely humble origins the Power Rangers exploded into first a US and later a global phenomenon. Two feature films and 21 seasons of TV shows later, the show continues to enthrall and amaze a whole new generation of kids. Yet, many may be unaware of the shows Japanese origins.
Not only was Power Rangers based on a Japanese show, most of the footage used in the show, especially its first two seasons, was lifted directly from the Japanese original.
In Japan, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was known as Zyuranger. Like its American counterpart it featured 6 multi-coloured heroes and their huge “Zord” robots taking down the villain of the week. There were a number of differences in tone and story though that eagle-eyed viewers of the US version can still spot.
For example, the petite young Asian girl who played the yellow ranger in the US version was the very definition of feminine beauty, but take a close look at her when she is in her Ranger form. She suddenly looks a lot bulkier and certainly less feminine. This is because the US show used the Japanese show’s footage for its battle sequences and in Japan, the yellow ranger was a man!
Likewise, fans will remember the sudden rebranding of the green ranger as the white ranger midway through season two. The US version explained this as the green ranger’s powers fading, due to their evil origin, and being replaced with the new purer powers of the white ranger. The Japanese show was far less forgiving in its storyline. In Japan, the green ranger’s power was linked directly to his life force. When he lost his powers, he died!
4) Takeshi’s Castle:
Photo: Surian Soosay on Flickr
Another low budget production that became a big hit internationally was this crazy game show. The multi-talented Japanese actor, director and comedian “Beat” Takeshi Kitano played the role of the Count who lorded over “Takeshi’s Castle”. Assisted by General Lee (played by Hayato Tani), contestants would compete in a series of increasingly difficult and bizarre challenges and obstacle courses as their numbers were whittled down from more than 100 at the beginning to just half a dozen or so in the final challenge. The show was notoriously difficult to win, with only 9 winners in total during the show’s entire 5 year run on Japanese TV. Their prize? 1 million Japanese yen (8400 US dollars) which, even in the late 80s, wasn’t that much.
In Japan, the show ended in 1990, but went on to become a global hit several years later when it was dubbed over and re-edited for various international markets.
I have to admit, when I came to Japan to live for the first time in 2006, the UK version was one of my favourite TV shows at the time. As such, one of my burning ambitions was to someday be a contestant on the show. I was gutted to find out I was already 16 years too late!
Today the spirit of Takeshi’s Castle lives on in the form of Wipeout. A US and UK co-production, Wipeout uses many of the original games from the classic show, albeit it with updated health and safety protocols!
3) Ninja Warrior:
Drawing on inspiration from predecessors like Takeshi’s Castle, Sasuke as it is known in Japan is the ultimate test of physical endurance and athleticism. The show is produced twice per year, as a one-off 3 hour special. In foreign markets, the special is edited into several 30 minute episodes and broadcast under the name “Ninja Warrior.” In the show, around 100 competitors will each have the chance to individually complete a highly elaborate and almost impossibly difficult assault course, within a strict time limit. Success sends the competitors onto further, even more difficult courses. The final challenge, should the competitor make it through is to scale a massive tower unaided in less than 1 minute.
Sasuke is open to both men and women, but in recent years, a female-only spin-off called “Kunoichi” has also proved popular. The show has also made several international specials over its 15 year run to date, with both athletes and celebrities amongst the competitors.
2) Iron Chef:
Imagine Masterchef blended with Ready, Steady, Cook with overtones of Power Rangers and you begin to understand what Iron Chef looks like.
This cookery-themed game show from Fuji Television featured some of Japan’s finest chefs, decked out in totally over the top colourful costumes, cooking increasingly bizarre dishes to a set time limit. Each week’s “cooking battle” was themed around a specific ingredient. The show was fronted by the charismatic “Chairman Kaga” owner of the “Kitchen Stadium” where each contest was held.
In much the same way as Takeshi’s Castle became a cult hit overseas, Iron Chef developed a similar following thanks to some rather campy redubbing for the North American Food Network cable TV channel.
In due course both US and UK versions of the show were developed each with their own distinctive characteristics.
The original Japanese show went off the air in 2002, however such was the success of its international offspring, Fuji TV decided to revisit Kitchen Stadium and a new version of the show launched to widespread acclaim in 2012.
1) Dragon's Den:
Photo: M C Morgan on FlickrThis reality game show, featuring some of the world’s most successful business figures, certainly surprised me when I discovered its’ Japanese origins. Under the Japanese title of “Money Tigers” the show originally retained the same format as the more globally successful UK version “Dragon’s Den” for most of its initial 3 year run. On the show, 5 high powered business executives offer investment to budding entrepreneurs in exchange for an equity stake in their company. The contestants not only have to woo the Dragons (Tigers in the Japanese version) with a 2 minute presentation, they also need to show their savvy and negotiating skill as they fight to secure the investment whilst giving away as little equity in their company as possible. The rules of the den dictate that a contestant must secure all of the investment or it’s a no-deal. With Dragons often offering only partial investment, the contestant is then faced with trying to bring on another investor with yet another charm offensive.
I’m probably not making it sound very interesting, but from 2001 to 2004 audiences in Japan were riveted. The rights were subsequently acquired by Sony who in turn distributed the show to the UK, Canada, US and several other territories. In the US and Israel, the show is known as Shark Tank.
The Japanese version was, I suppose expectedly, rather more sedate than the often emotionally charged UK version. But then I doubt there are many in Japan who could match the cutting jibes of Deborah Meaden or the biting sarcasm of Duncan Bannatyne.
Whilst the show remains off the air in Japan, its global spin-offs continue to draw more and more viewers each year.
As you can see Japan has perhaps made more of an impact on your TV viewing habits than you thought. I hope you enjoyed this article, it’s certainly got me feeling nostalgic.
Time to go and dust off the old Power Rangers DVD collection.
It’s Morphin’ Time!!