At its very best Japanese TV is a mixed bag, every foreigner seems to go through the same honeymoon faze of loving the quirkiness and visual dynamism, before finally suffocating under the mass of adverts, poor scheduling and the same 10 “talents” being shoved in their face until their expiration mercifully date comes around.  Well, maybe that is a bit unfair, but I stand by the fact that unless you are specifically watching a specific program the base level of filler will bore you senseless in time.

One of the programs that R and I here at Tokyo Telephone religiously tune in for, record on DVD and archive like nerds is: SASUKE which truly does deserve the blend of emboldening and capitals.  If you have not heard of it (or Ninja Warrior as it called in the US) you have missed out on the most gloriously emotionally grueling hours of TV that easily makes up for the usual mediocrity beamed into your living rooms.

In short it is an obstacle course, but that is undertaken by olympic level athletes, gymnasts and a smattering of muscle-bound men who have devoted their lives to taking on the punishing time limits, endurance and the muddy water to punish them for their inevitable failure.  Continue reading for a look at the latest tournament: Sasuke 26 and further convincing that you really should be watching this show…

The basic structure is that 100 challengers take on a 4 round elimination tournament, not against each other as such, but against the course.  Usually no-one wins, usually no-one even makes it to the last round, usually well over 80% are eliminated in the first round and usually this makes for great TV.

Yes, that is the success rate – 0.12%.  We once tried to play a drinking game where we drank every time someone crashed out of Sasuke – it ended very very badly…

This is the final stage, the dream for every Sasuke competitor which culminates in a dead climb up the tower above – not for the faint hearted.

And if you think I am being grandiose, well then you clearly haven’t heard the official commentator screaming in despair every single time someone fails.  But crucially, this is one of the best things about the show, that the commentator is more excitable than a Mexican football commentator, but with the sincerity of Morgan Freeman.

See the determination, the manliness that could have come straight from the pages of Hokuto no Ken (or the bars of Ni-chome) – well this man will be crying in the next 60 seconds.  That is Sasuke.

Only three men have ever finished the course in 26 competitions.  For the record, women are allowed to enter, but they have their own women’s only competition called Kunoichi which focuses more on balance than the mens, and is still must-see TV.

The usual mix of celebrities, talents, idols and extroverts from regular Japanese TV to invade the show, but mercifully they never make it past the first half of the first round.  Here Naoto from Exile is seconds from failure.

This is a new element for the 26th competition – The Rolling Escargot!  If it looks like the course is getting too easy they always upgrade an element making sure that the success rate never gets too high.  The Jumping Spider still represents the pinnacle of difficulty on the first stage and has reduced Olympic athletes to crying men in a blink of an eye.

This too on the first stage is something of a leveler.  If you don’t have the strength left then this is pretty much impossible to get past and I have seen many collapse here rather than into the brown water reserved for failure.

On the second stage  (it being night-time by the time the first stage is complete – oh yes this is up to a 4 hour show) the time limit is less pressing, and it starts to be mode about technique.

Most of the real challenges are a mix of balance and upper-body strength which generally favors the Japanese physique, but long arms are the most desirable attribute in my opinion.

A classic challenge that can usually be relied on to unseat someone.

Now we are into the third stage where the time limit is abandoned altogether as that would be too hardcore – even for Sasuke.  There are usually about 5 people left to take this on at this point and all the challenges require obscene upper body strength.

For the record this time foreigners dominated the competition, especially the Americans.  Some commentators have said that because the competition was announced only weeks before it took place it did not give the Japanese enough time to prepare, leaving the Americans who had been training for the selection process in the US to take the lead.  Still, you cannot deny that the foreign competitors looked really strong this year, and that has got to be down to the ever-increasing popularity of the show abroad.

And this is where the show stopped this year.  No-one beat this segment.  The End.

Look at that little 4 inch ledge on the top right of the picture above.  That is what they have to jump to, and I am afraid no-one managed it, maybe next time eh?

But this kind of extreme difficulty is only half the fun with Sasuke.  The other half is the drama, particularly of the human kind.

Between each section of competition there are these introductions to the challengers where they are mostly described in the same glowing heroic tones as Spartan warriors straight out of 300.

There is definitely an emphasis on the all-Japanese working-class hero which is very hard to not get swept up in.  This is Makoto Nagano – training out at sea on his fishing boat.

One of our many traditions with this show (excluding drinking games) is to choose a challenger to represent you (the lazy viewer).  Rebecca is always Nagano, pictured training above and generally trounces my selections.

The supporters can always be relied on to keep the morale going with appropriate reactions all through the single day of filming it takes to produce the show.

Now follows a typical 30 seconds of Sasuke:  Shot of dedication in a true man’s eyes.

Shot of fans and contestants echoing your tension at home.

Close-up of cute children / wife of competitor.

Seconds later the man is defeated by the mighty course and sent home after a close-up of tears if they emerge.  (Oh and unlucky Rebecca’s Nagano this year!)

Well there you go, I hope you can tell I am an enormous fan of this and you should definitely give it a go if you haven’t already.  It is unpretentious, emotional fun at its very  best.  The kind of masculinity reserved for tiny Yakiniku joints with frothy beer and shouting Masters which you cannot help but get swept up in.

There is also actually a big foreign fan scene for the show:  Official site here and my favorite English language blog on it is the exceptional Rambling Rican.  As for actually watching it outside of Japan there are clips on Youtube and as you would expect the unscrupulous avenues of the internet have it well archived.  Oh and if you are in the US they show it on G4 apparently.

Well there you go, I hope you will join me for Sasuke 27!

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5 Responses to Sasuke – Quite Simply the Best Program on Japanese TV

  1. Lisa says:

    Ahhhh I love this show!!!
    I ever so rarely watch it (any scheduled TV is beyond me. I forget, remember it wrong…it jsut doesn’t work. ^^;)
    But I agree, it’s totally exciting! I usually get bored easily with competitions like this, but Sasuke and what was it… Takeshi’s Castle? Are the exceptions.

    And I totally approve of coupling it with drinking games! Winner!! XD

  2. Tokyo Telephone says:

    Glad to hear you are a fan too!

    Japanese TV scheduling is baffling at the best of times, even with digital tv including a channel guide I still seemed to miss shows and all the interesting stuff is crammed into the early hours of the morning. Maybe some kind of HDD recorder would be the answer.

    Oh and Takeshi’s Castle has been tainted for me forever by Craig Charles’ brilliant narration in the UK….

  3. Arsenette says:

    Awesome article! Definitely must see TV! And definitely agreed.. I watch for the drinking games.. er.. sorry.. wrong one.. I watch for the men.. scratch that I’m married.. I watch.. oh screw it.. I watch it for the human drama. Stuff they can’t make up.. stuff that really is cool to watch because most of them are not actors but real life people. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I do hope they continue this show for a very long time. I just wish they schedule it better and give proper preparation to everyone involved. Level playing field is much more appealing to watch. The camaraderie though in this show is bar none.. I think that makes it more appealing for me to watch in the glut of people vs. people shows here in the USA.

    LOL Thanks for the shout-out 🙂

  4. Tokyo Telephone says:

    No problem, Thank You for the years of great Sasuke content on your blog!

    And you are right, it is the element of camaraderie, not just between the contestants, but artificially between the viewer and contestants. You “want” them to succeed. Unlike a lot of shows where the pleasure is in watching failure.

    I think Sasuke might need a bit of modernisation to survive, but I don’t think it is going anywhere just yet. Ah well, I will continue to support it, I even brought that awful iphone app!


  5. Arsenette says:

    LOL don’t have an Iphone so I didn’t get to buy it. :p

    We’ll keep everyone updated as we find anything.. usually finding anything about this show is like pulling teeth.. gaaaaaaaah.

    Will look forward to reading your blog! Seems I missed a lot of interesting stuff!


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