Tokyo roses

Jeopardy! Japanese style
By MIKE MILIARD  |  July 1, 2008

STARTO! Smack in the middle of the Tokyo megalopolis, stateside stereotypes run free.

It’s a special people indeed who can cast off the twin yokes of rigid history and a driven work ethic to spend time unwinding in Day-Glo game-show studios, tapping hand drums and howling with laughter at stunts like “Human Tetris” (players must contort their bodies to fit oddly shaped cut-outs in an advancing wall), “Human Bowling” (self-explanatory), “Do Not Laugh” (contestants who violate that rule are punched in the gonads), “Marshmallow Eating Contest” (with faces attached to a wall by rubber bands, players try, Tantalus-like, to munch the puffy confections dangling before them), and “Old Man Bites Tenderly” (don’t ask).

Heretofore, Americans who wanted to watch adults engage in such activities had to head to YouTube. But at long last, the network sages have responded. There’s the new Wipeout (ABC, Tuesdays  8 pm), a Japanese-inspired series that pits contestants against each other as they stumble and belly-flop over such obstacle-course stunts as “Big Balls” and “The Dreadmill.” There’s also Hole in the Wall, a program based on “Human Tetris” that’s set to premiere on Fox soon.

But the best of the bunch is I Survived a Japanese Game Show (ABC, Tuesdays  9 pm). Here, 10 Americans compete on a game show called Majide — which loosely translates as “you must be crazy.” What’s different from Wipeout, however, is that the contestants are battling in Japan. Moreover, the zaniness of the competition is like the gooey-chewy center inside a reality-show chocolate. Think of it as Survivor meets The Real World meets Lost in Translation.

Smack in the middle of the Tokyo megalopolis, stateside stereotypes run free. Cathy, from Staten Island, is the bitch. Justin, from Alabama, is the guileless good ol’ boy. Darcy, from Idaho, is the sweet small-town single mom. Bilenda, from North Carolina, is the sassy black chick. And Andrew, from Boston, and Olga, from Medford, do their part to up the Masshole quotient.

Nearly as entertaining as the game-show stunts is watching the Yanks grapple with Nipponese culture shock. Standing in Shibuya Square, with pedestrians swarming the streets like worker ants while towering neon signs pulsate with kana glyphs, middle-aged Ben marvels that he was “sitting on a couch in Punxsutawney” just the day before. In the house they share, things are even kookier. The beds are on the floor?! No shoes allowed!! Sake tastes like lighter fluid!! Dried squid!?! The toilet has . . . a remote control!!!

But back in Toho Studios, once host Romu Kandu yells, “Starto!”, weirdness takes on new meaning. It’s interesting that, in a country as wild and woolly as America, staid quiz shows like Jeopardy! are among the most popular, whereas in Japan, land of stringent etiquette and polite bows, the id is unleashed.

Once divided into teams — Yellow Penguins and Green Monkeys — our bemused compatriots set about competing in such wacky tasks as “Conveyor Restaurant” (a designated “eater” must gobble as many glutinous mochi rice balls as possible from a tray perched atop a teammate’s helmet as said teammate jogs on a long treadmill) and “Big Bug Splat on Wind Shield” (dressed as insects, complete with prosthetic green guts, contestants must leap from a trampoline and attach suction cups to target). Hilarity, as it sometimes does, ensues.

Japan’s neighbors across the East China Sea have a famous curse: “May you live in interesting times.” That we certainly do. The good news is that there are ways to cope. To paraphrase the late Hunter S. Thompson: “When the going gets weird, the weird put on a bug suit and turn pro.”

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