I Survived a Japanese Game Show: Thumbs up

Yesterday, I wondered if ABC’s I Survived a Japanese Game Show would be really awful or very funny. I had some concern that there would be cultural insensitivity that would make for very bad TV. My teenage daughter, who I corralled to watch with me, and I laughed and laughed.

Hollywood got it right.

Whoever thought of this show likes people and knows something about what it feels like to be thrust into an unfamiliar environment, but wanting to stay open to the experience. This was like Lost In Translation meets The Amazing Race, Average Joe and the game show, Beat the Clock.

Because the cast had no idea what kind of show they had signed up for when they arrived from their various homes across the U.S., even the quick trip from the domestic to the international terminal at LAX in Los Angeles was funny.

“Huh? Say what?” they wondered after the short hop from one building to the other.

“You’re going to Japan,” said host/interpreter Tony Sano.

“Great!” ” Wonderful! ” was shouted out in a flurry of excitement. Most had never been out of the U.S.

After arriving in Tokyo, Ben Hughes, age 44, and the official handler of Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania summed up the feeling, “I was sitting on a couch in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and now, I’m in Japan.”

After briefly establishing Tokyo as a bustling, bright lights, big city kind of place, contestants were taken from the busiest intersection in the world across Rainbow Bridge to their home away from home –Kansai House run by Mamasan.

Mamasan, a stout Japanese woman has the role in the show of keeping these folks in line and teaching them a bit about Japanese culture. ” No shoes in the house,” she barked. “Now, you go to bed.”

The sake, the traditional style Japanese beds and the remote control toilet were points of interest before shut eye.

Here are a few of the reactions:

  • Of the sake, “It’s lighter than a wine cooler.”
  • Of the beds, “I don’t know if I want to sleep on the floor,”
  • And of the toilet, “Tokyo is way far advanced than the United States of America.”

The next morning, still without a clue about the purpose of this Japan jaunt, the contestants were taken to Toho Studio where Sano told them, “Many classic Japanese films are made here.”

All nodded and murmured in their what I imagined was a jet-lagged, “I don’t know why this is important really since I’ve never seen a Japanese classic film, but I’m happy to be here anyway” sound.

Then the fun really began. The intro to the game show was perfect.

As they trotted through a door while Sano told them that this was where one of the most popular game shows was filmed, one of them said, “It’s completely pitch black.”

Sano said, “The game show starts right now,” and the lights came on.

Surprise! There they were in the middle of the studio floor. “Hello, America! Welcome to Japan!” shouts out game show host, Rome Kanda. The Japanese audience on both sides goes wild.

The Americans are up for anything, even though they have an inkling that they are in the middle of a cross-cultural joke.

The look on their faces reminded me of how my Peace Corps group and I must have looked the day we were whisked from our Western-style training site to live in an African village only three days after arriving in the country. Totally unprepared, but willing to give it a go.

“This is Majide,” Kanda, explains. “It means you got to be crazy.” For the chance to win $250,000 the contestants are willing to be crazy.

“Wave to the crowd,” says Kanda.

The contestants wave.

“Wow, they do whatever I tell them,” says Kanda in Japanese to the Japanese audience, who laughs and continues to stomp, beat on drums, generally make excited audience sounds, and shout out “Majide” whenever Kanda gives the cue. This is a non-menacing audience, though, and the impression is they are rooting for the Americans to do well.

Gamely, and good-natured, the contestants divide up into two teams: the yellow penguins and the green monkeys.

The first game is called, “Conveyor Restaurant.”

In a nutshell: One person from the team is the eater. The other members have a helmet like contraption on their heads that holds a mochi, a sticky rice ball cake. Running on a treadmill, they make it to the spot where the eater is. The eater, without using his hands, has to lean over, grab the mochi with his mouth and eat it all up while the treadmill runner drops to the treadmill and is briskly dumped into a vat of flour.

The team that downs the most sticky rice balls in four minutes wins. As the game continues the treadmill goes faster. It was a hoot.

“There’s no cheating and no hanky panky,” warns Kanda.

“Good fall,” says a member of the yellow penguins who are watching from the green room. Zip goes a green monkey into the flour.

Later, covered from head to toe in flour, Ben says, “I hate treadmills,” but runs his heart out anyway.

“The mochi ball was so gooey I couldn’t chew it and swallow it,” said Donnell Pitman, age 32, and a real estate developer from Illinois who was the green team’s eater.

Sticky or not, he downed 10 of those babies. Which was enough to win the game. The yellow team only managed nine, even though 28 year-old, Andrew Kelly-Hayes, a radio sales consultant from Massachusetts ate like a champ.

“I don’t even know what that was. It was like putty,” he said later.

Once, while Andrew was chewing away, Kanda said in Japanese, “Look at that chubby face go to work, ” making the audience chortle with delight.

Fellow teammate, Darcy Sletager, a single mom and photo editor from Sandpoint, Idaho couldn’t stay on her feet long enough to deliver one mochi ball which caused the yellow team to lose.

“Darcy looked like a crash test dummy,” lamented Justin Wood, a financial representative from Alabama, and another yellow penguin.

For losing, the yellow penguins got to dress up like rickshaw drivers the next day to haul amenable Japanese people around.

For their win, the green monkeys scored a helicopter tour of Tokyo.

Each of these segments helped fill out the hour time slot of “How I Survived a Japanese game show,” but also established the personalities of the players. Cathy Nardone, age 21, for example, was described as a “Staten Island Diva.”

After the rickshaw experience, one of them said what is a mantra that ensures pleasant travel, “We took a bad situation and made it pretty cool.”

Still one of them was to be eliminated. The team chose Darcy because of her lack of “Conveyor Restaurant’ performance and Bilenda Madison, to compete in the game “Big Bugs Splat on Windshield.”

Dressed like bugs, the two took turns running towards a trampoline that they jumped on which hurled them at a mock-up of a car windshield with targets. The one who deposited green goo on the windshield closer to the targets got the most points.

“Are you exciting? ” Kanda asked Darcy. “Yes, I’m exciting, ” she said before running towards her last jump. She was exciting, but came one point short of winning.

At this point, guys in black suits ran into the studio, and after dancing around winner Bilenda, picked up Darcy carrying her out of the building.

The show ended with Darcy walking out the studio gate still dressed in her costume, her bug wings bouncing and her antennas swaying ever so slightly.

Yep, I was impressed. This is a good-natured show, at least so far. It teaches a bit about Japan, generates fun–perfect for the summer, and shows just how willing Americans are to put on a game face when they have to, and liking it.

I’m tuning in next week.

*Photos are from the “I Survived a Japanese Game Show” Web site.