Hey! I Survived Mama-san!

Monday, June 30th, 2008 | SMASH TV with

You’d think that a TV program called “I Survived a Japanese Game Show” just has to stink. Thanks to You Tube and the Internet, and even tawdry shows on Spike TV like MXC (with those cheesy voiceovers), we have a basic idea of what these game shows are: boisterous, screaming crowds, over-the-top hosts and contestants performing all sorts of humiliating tasks to try and score cash and prizes.

There was even a “Simpsons” episode about this several years ago. Homer and family fly to Tokyo and commit all the worst and base cultural faux pas relative to the Land of the Rising Sun. Out of money, they go to work at a sardine factory, but are then transported to the set of a noisy Japanese game show, where they perform stunts so unbelievable that, well, they belong in a cartoon.

That’s exactly what happens on “I Survived”. Except that there is no rickety bridge with hot flames like in “The Simpsons”. Here it’s just regular people, typical Americans who are not even told when they arrive at LAX what they have been chosen to do. They proceed to take the next flight to Tokyo and attempt to take in the sights and lights of Shibuya Square, which the show calls the “busiest intersection in the world”. They are pretty overwhelmed and can’t believe what they see. And here you have, as far as reality TV casts go, the typical awful American who a.) is a sassy, spoiled girl from Staten Island; b) a brotha with the street-cred from the inner-city; c) the hick from the “dirty South”; d) the meek young housewife from the Midwest and e) the middle-aged balding schlub from Punxsutawney, PA. Yes, there are others (10 in all), but you get the picture: no one has ever traveled outside of their respective towns (surprise, surprise) and they really seem to stick out in this faraway land. As they stood there that evening on the bustling Tokyo street, I also thought this: there’s a TV show is being filmed here with panicked Americans, but the average passer-by doesn’t seem all that fazed..

The conceit of the show is quickly revealed by the young host, Tony Sano, who speaks both Japanese and English. They are on a reality show and the winner will receive $250,000. What they still don’t know is that on the following day they will, Simpsons-style, be flung on to the stage of a Japanese game show called “Majide” (which is roughly translated as “You Must Be Crazy”), where they will be forced to perform elaborate physical stunts to win rewards and hopefully not be eliminated. So you have a show-within-a-show. The contestants seem genuinely stunned to be on the “real” game show that is filming at Toho Studios, as if they are guinea pigs on display, ready to be teased by the loud but hilarious host Romu Kanda. It’s not just the stunts that are humiliating, but Kanda rouses the young crowd by talking behind the Americans’ backs. An insult here and there –yes, it’s priceless and Kanda’s timing is impeccable. Oh wait, now it’s time for the “green monkey” team to suit up. You see, the guy at the top of the giant treadmill has to eat as many mochi balls from his teammates’ helmets as said teammate runs in place before falling into a sandbox full of flour. There is even a black-suited judge there to make sure he swallows completely (“It tastes like putty!”).

Soon, it becomes clear that the physical stunts and the game show itself are actually not the most compelling aspects of “I Survived a Japanese Game Show” Dress up as a giant fly and hurl yourself on to a wall and score target points? No. This show gains its points by striving to not be a typical American TV show, one that over-explains what is happening (“Coming Up!”) with oily hosts or D-list celebrities. Rather, this is an American-Japanese co-production, with both staffs working to create a pretty seamless cultural experience. How often do you see English subtitles on prime-time TV –for some snide comments made in Japanese? The hayseed Americans find Japan “thrilling” and “can’t wait” to see Tokyo but are quickly repelled by the dried fish and sake, part of the food spread laid out for them at their house in the crowded Tokyo ‘burbs. Like the Simpsons, they are blown away by the electronic toilet with a remote control (“Make it flush!”), and you sort of expect that the lumpy Homer look-a-like is going to smash through the shoji screens by mistake. There is even a Mama-san of the house, a tiny, feisty woman dressed in an apron that barks orders to the contestants to take off their shoes (of course!) and generally hurries them up all the time. OK, so perhaps this is pushing some unflattering stereotypes of Japanese women, but I happen to think that Mama-san will emerge as the breakout star of this show. With her squeaky but firm voice bellowing, and certainly not being very friendly, we see ourselves both admiring her spunk and her impatience with people who have to struggle to learn a culture and somehow withstand each other. Mama-san knows these Americans have a game show to attend to, but she isn’t there to be the nurturing, supportive type, the shoulder to cry on. Nor would we want her to.

Lisa Katayama, in her blog, TokyoMango, takes “I Survived” to task for over-dramatizing Japanese culture and that, if anything, it only shows Japanese humor at a surface level. She misses the point. Given the low-brow nature of “I Survived”, it is not necessarily meant for Nipponophiles, and those who have grown up in Japan and, like Katayama, try to criticize the fact that rickshaws used by the losers are arcane and not, as the show claims, a “popular” form of transportation. Indeed, they forget what kind of show this is. This isn’t PBS; it’s summer filler-time at ABC. Architecture during the Meiji Restoration this is not. We have a harmless TV show in which average Americans look silly and pushy, make dumb remarks and by living in a country as different from the US as you can get, somehow realize that they have to adapt somehow. Isn’t this what reality shows are all about anyways? Watch out for Mama-san, though, and please take off your shoes.

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