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What's Wrong With American Ninja Warrior? 349

Posted by timothy
from the where-to-begin dept.
Reader Thom Stark (thomst) writes with a pointed review of this year's Americanized version of (awesome) Japanese TV show "Sasuke." "I've been a fan of the program the G4 channel calls "Ninja Warrior" since I first encountered it in mid-2005. For those who are unfamiliar with the show, it's a re-edited-for-American-TV version of a Japanese show called "Sasuke," with often-snarky English commentary and graphics overlaid on the Japanese original. "Ninja Warrior" is a fast-paced, wildly-entertaining program in which 100 contestants of varying skill levels pit themselves against a 4-stage obstacle course that grows ever more fiendishly difficult with each passing season. There've been 27 such seasons to date, and the most current incarnation has become so incredibly taxing that Batman himself would have trouble completing it. Now G4 has teamed up with its corporate parent, NBCUniversal, to bring the world's toughest obstacle course to America, and the resulting show, "American Ninja Warrior" turns out to be distinctly inferior to its Japanese progenitor. The final broadcast in a series that has run for six previous weekly installments appeared on July 9, with segments on both G4 and NBC, and I thought it was fitting that I mark the occasion with a critique of what I believe to be "American Ninja Warrior"'s fatal philosophical and production missteps, and contrast them with the original pitch-perfect product." (Read on below.)


First, it's important to understand that the Japanese program's name has nothing to do with either ninjas or warriors. "Sasuke" means something like "excellence" in Japanese. It has much the same flavor as the Greek concept of arete, the pursuit of excellence as a defining life goal. G4's marketeers clearly decided that their ADHD-addled core audience of video gamers was unlikely to find a show called "Excellence" compelling enough to warrant paying attention, so they decided to jazz it up by invoking ninjas, instead. Oh, and warriors, too, to make it more appealing to the World of Warcraft fanatics. And that was fine, as far as it went, because G4 had the good sense not to mess with the program content itself (other than to poorly translate much of the Japanese-language commentary, again in an apparent attempt to inject some good ol' American zazz).

As a side note, commentary is not the only translational sin of which G4 is guilty. The competition takes place at Midoriyama, a Japanese place name that G4 insists on referring to as "Mount Midoriyama." The problem with that is that "yama" is a Japanese suffix meaning "mountain." Thus, "Fujiyama" means "Mount Fuji" and "Midoriyama" means "Mount Midori" — which, in turn, means that G4's translation is not only redundant, with its repeating of the word "mountain" in both English and Japanese, it's wildly inaccurate, because the Japanese word means "Mount Midori."

But I digress.

"American Ninja Warrior" — the strictly-domestic production — suffers badly from human interest bloat. The Japanese program (at least as it is presented on G4) frequently features mini-portraits of the competitors, but these segments are very short — typically under 20 seconds — and they help to put a human face on the often-superhuman efforts of the program's contenders. In "American Ninja Warrior," the corresponding segments too often are near-epic mini-documentaries that run a minute or longer, and they seriously impair the program's flow — especially because there are so flinkin' many of them. The producers badly need to rein in their out-of-control bathos machinery and reduce both the number and the running time of their athlete portraiture.

But the worst mistake that the brainiacs behind "American Ninja Warrior" have made is to Americanize the competition. The most endearing philosophical quality of "Sasuke" is that the participants compete, not against each other, but individually against the course itself. There is no zero-sum in the game of Sasuke. Should more than one contestant complete the nigh-impossible series of obstacles (an outcome that has never yet occurred on "Sasuke"), both would be equally celebrated, both would be equally entitled to claim the title of "winner," and the accomplishment of one would in no way diminish the glory of the other. To the contrary, such an event would be cause for national celebration, since winners of "Sasuke" are considered national heroes in Japan.

By contrast, not only have the American producers chosen to have the participants compete against each other in regional qualifying events for a spot in the "finals" competition in Las Vegas (not an unreasonable choice, given that they needed to whittle the field down to a manageable number of contestants for the trials at the actual Mount Midori course), but they've made it a zero-sum game. Like the Highlander, there can be only one American Ninja Warrior — which reduces the exalted pursuit of excellence to just another athletic competition, with the top prize of half-a-million dollars going to the one contestant who not only completes the course, but does so in the fastest time. Anyone else who makes it to the top of Mount Midori is, basically, just another chump. An also-ran. A footnote.

And that's what's really wrong with "American Ninja Warrior."
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What's Wrong With American Ninja Warrior?

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  • by Princeofcups (150855) <john@princeofcups.com> on Thursday July 12, 2012 @11:40AM (#40628473) Homepage

    In Japan, people are praised for trying their best. In most seasons, no one wins the final obstacle. In America, there has to be a winner to celebrate, everyone else is a failure. I much prefer the Japanese way of looking at things.

  • by gknoy (899301) <gknoy&anasazisystems,com> on Thursday July 12, 2012 @11:48AM (#40628577)

    Agreed. This is what I loved about the Japanese show: I could honestly root for every single competitor, and sincerely hope that they could win. Those challenges are HARD! I love the spirit of camaraderie they show towards one another, and that some people compete just to have fun.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 12, 2012 @11:51AM (#40628621)

    In England there's a hill called Torpenhow Hill. The first mapmakers asked the locals what they called it, and the locals said "Tor", which meant "hill" in the old language. The newcomers spoke a different language, and so they named it "Tor Pen," adding a suffix which meant hill in their own tongue. Few centuries go by, new mapmakers come around speaking Old English, which uses the word "How" for "hill." "Tor Pen, you say? Okay Torpen How it is!"
    Finally modern English maps are made and this time they contract "Torpen How" into "Torpenhow" and add "Hill".

      So the name of the place, translated into English, is "Hill-hill-hill hill." How's that for silliness?

  • by jellomizer (103300) on Thursday July 12, 2012 @11:58AM (#40628717)

    America and Japan, are two very different countries, with a much different culture.
    While we have similarities, there are also big differences.

    For example back when I was a Kid, in Boy Scouts I was Hiking in New Mexico (Philmont a big Boy Scout Camp, where people come from around the world) There was a Japanese Troop that was taking a similar route that we had, and we met up from time to time. At the Trading Posts there was what was called a Swap Box. Where after we get our Rations of food (usually for 2 or 3 days) we can go threw them, drop food we didn't like, and pickup food that we did like. We actually loved it when the Japanese troop was there the same day. They would trade Oat Meal Packets which we really liked, with some energy bars we found to be disgusting. Because Americans Like Sweet food more then Japanese do.

  • by theBraindonor (577245) on Thursday July 12, 2012 @12:07PM (#40628809) Homepage
    Your critique of the show turning winning contestants into losers is dead on. Kamerion Wimbley [nbcsports.com] took and completed the preliminary course. Watching a man of his size complete the course was amazing to see. Then we got to see him get knocked out due to other contestants coming in with faster times. And then watched an added insult in the finals when they bring in 'wild card' contestants--many of whom did not even complete the preliminary course. And of course all the wildcards were turned into 'human interest' stories. Thankfully the grandfather wildcard actually did complete the course.

    My biggest issue with the show was that they end up giving only summaries of the runs to half of the contestants--even after having 2/3rds of the contestants competing on the G4 show. The original show packed the same amount of content into 30 minutes that NBC is trying to stretch to 2 hours.
  • by Norwell Bob (982405) on Thursday July 12, 2012 @12:12PM (#40628859)
    Now, with sports, you'd expect a much easier crossover, but I can see the submitter's points, for sure. But in the case of most other shows that get imported to the States, most notably (IMHO) British comedy, they just don't translate well due to cultural differences. IT Crowd was a fantastic show in the UK... did the US version ever make it past the pilot (almost a scene for scene reproduction which, for whatever reason, was just weak and didn't work?)

    The Office is another example people use, although I must admit I've never spent any considerable time watching either. How is the US version of Shameless compared to the UK version?

    I'm going way off topic here, but I feel like ranting, so mod me as you will. It seems like ever since the Sonic the Hedgehog commercials of the mid-90s hit the airwaves, America has this obsession with being loud, irreverent, and in-your-face. TV shows and movies largely eschew complicated or subtle humor in favor of lets-see-how-much-we-can-get-away-with. That's what turned me off to Family Guy after the first few seasons. Alright, McFarlane, we get it... you're really pushing the envelope there with your three identical shows. Sadly, most "average citizens" seem to eat this garbage up. I often think of the scene in Idiocracy with the TV show "Ow My Balls".

    Honestly, I have Comcast at my apartment solely for the Internet (it costs you more if you don't get TV through them also)... I have about a dozen channels, 8 of which son en Espanol... but I have an XBox360 and Netflix, and far more quality programming to watch than I'll ever get to, thanks to those.

    Allow me to digress one more time, though... and slightly back on topic. One Japanese obstacle course show that was aired by Spike was altered to the point of parody, and THAT worked... in the US it was called "MXC" or "Most Extreme Elimination Challenge", and the ridiculous voice overs were done, IIRC, by comedians, and were genuinely funny. I miss that show.
  • by the_B0fh (208483) on Thursday July 12, 2012 @12:18PM (#40628939) Homepage

    *THIS* I hate that stupid US custom where you must tell everyone they are number one and they too can be an astronaut and president.

  • Re:what's wrong? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Loughla (2531696) on Thursday July 12, 2012 @12:20PM (#40628961)

    Fans of the original simply should not have gotten their hopes up.

    Fans of the original never had hopes for this version - as you said, the core group that loved the original knew from the start that the american version would be an abortion. Late comers, God bless them, might like the new, watered down version, because ignorance is bliss.

    I find it absolutely entertaining to see how poorly a marketer or television guru can do when given enough time and money. Hell, I could rip off a show from another country and do it terribly. Where's my paycheck?

    And I LOVED the "most extreme elimination challenge" version of Takeshi's Castle. I don't care how far off it was. I fucking loved that show. Guy LeDouche was my favorite 'character' of any show, ever.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 12, 2012 @12:57PM (#40629413)

    "I love the spirit of camaraderie they show towards one another"

    Exactly! None of the competitors view it as a competition among 100 people. They all view it as a competition between 100 people and Sasuke itself. Every competitor roots and pushes for every other competitor. When Nagano slips or loses his grip and takes a splash, not only does the audience feel distraught, but you can also see every other competitor's surprise, shock, and dismay. I think those truly dedicated to trying to conquer Sasuke want other competitor's to complete it as much as they themselves want to. They view total victory as a triump of the human spirit, not as a triump of a particular individual. And I agree with the reviewer that that spirit is lost in the American version.

  • by nine-times (778537) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Thursday July 12, 2012 @01:44PM (#40629983) Homepage

    First, you start of with something that's popular. Then you assume that Americans are too stupid to understand any culture other than the perfectly homogenised average of the USA as portrayed by Hollywood.

    And I think that the crazy part of it is that they take something popular, and then they go, "Well American audiences would never go for that! We have to change it." No, American audiences *would* go for that. They did go for that. You know they did, because it was popular enough that you wanted to copy it.

    I don't think the problem is necessarily that the producers think the American audience is dumb (though I'm sure it's part of it), but that the producers themselves are dumb. Their job is to make television shows that people want to watch, and they're not very good at it.

  • by SecurityTheatre (2427858) on Thursday July 12, 2012 @03:06PM (#40630897)

    Teaching kids that they CAN become president or an astronaut is fine AS LONG AS YOU ARE CLEAR that it requires the following:

    1) Dedicate every waking moment to the absolutely relentless pursuit of the goal

    2) If you screw up badly, possibly even once, you will likely never reach this goal

    There is a huge difference between "Little Timmy, if you focus every ounce of your being toward this goal and work relentlessly, you do have the opportunity to achieve it." and the more common "Little Timmy, you're going to be an astronaut, all you need is to have super big dreams!"

    When given a test (it doesn't matter what type), American teenagers score in the middle of the pack amongst other nations, yet they CONSISTENTLY rate their own performance far higher than they deserve and far higher than any other nation. They are also one of the few groups of kids who almost always rate their own performance far higher than it actually was.

    The conclusion is that America has an excess of self-esteem and self-delusion and perhaps could use a little humility, culturally.

  • by SecurityTheatre (2427858) on Thursday July 12, 2012 @03:11PM (#40630935)

    What if nobody ever actually won? (as in this show)

    Then it seems pretty clear that it's not a problem to praise everyone's effort.

    But when someone actually does win, they are vaulted to "national hero" status. That's pretty cool.

    Imagine, in "Kiddie sports", if the undefeated team was told they were heros and all the other kids weren't.

    Here lies the difference. Holding up someone's effort (yet recognizing they didn't meet the goal) is valueable, provided there is the chance of meeting the goal and being much more highly praised. Treating everyone exactly the same "Everyone is a winner" is silly, but praising people who fall short of a nearly impossible goal isn't bad, especially when most people couldn't even take 3 steps on that course without hurting themselves, so we're not talking about "everyone" who steps onto the course.

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