Different countries seem to specialize in different TV shows. The Brits are great at tight, twisty—and cozy—mysteries. Korea dominates the drama world. And Japan? Well, aside from anime, they also make some of the most over-the-top game shows ever. Often these competitions involve physical and mental endurance, absurd situations, and unwitting celebrities. Here’s our guide to 10 of them that transcend the language barrier.
With one exception, these aren’t available for regular streaming. Instead, you’ll find them mostly on YouTube, a service called Bilibili based in Shanghai, and even the Internet Archive, among others; we’ll provide the necessary links below.
One of the hallmarks of game shows in Japan is punishment for failure, and Missitsu Nazotoki Variety Dasshutsu Game DERO! pushed that concept to the limit. When it premiered in 2009, the most obvious comparison was to the hit Saw movies—contestants were locked inside rooms with “deathtraps” like quicksand, compressing walls, rising water, and more. They had to compete to solve puzzles and answer questions before the situation became dire and they “died.” No, DERO! didn’t rack up a real-life body count. But even though the traps weren’t really lethal, they certainly drove participants into a state of hilarious panic.
Sentosha: Battle Wars is one of the more excessive ideas for a game show I’ve ever seen. Blending the gimmickry of American Gladiators with the automotive mania of Top Gear, contestants must drive their vehicles through explosions, over rickety ramps, and through bizarre terrain, all in the name of “danger-tainment.” The legal liability here is enough to give an insurance company fits. The participants aren’t pro drivers, either—they’re a motley crew of entertainers, comedians, and even pro wrestler the Great Muta.
3. Za Gaman
One of the earliest physical challenge-style game shows from Japan, Za Gaman wasn’t terribly popular when it aired in the 80s but found a new life overseas. Based on a recreational activity among Japanese college students, the show pit young men against each other in a variety of absolutely insane and inhumane feats, with the quitters being eliminated. Of all the shows on this list, this one had the most potential for permanent physical or mental trauma, so it’s hard to find episodes online, but the clips that have surfaced are great.
4. VS Arashi
If you’re a pop star in Japan, you can’t just sing and look pretty. No, the life of an “idol” involves a never-ending series of personal appearances and TV gigs. In the case of boy band Arashi, that included their own competition show where they must battle guest teams in a variety of absurd events. Some favorites include the Rolling Coin Tower, where they stack discs on a spinning platform; Kicking Sniper, where contestants punt big rubber balls at moving targets; and Cliff Climb, which is exactly what it sounds like. Goofy, colorful, and brisk, this is a charming show with a devoted cult following.
5. Tokyo Friend Park 2
If there’s an American game show closest in spirit to some of these, it’s The Price Is Right with its legion of goofy minigames. But where that show revolves around commerce and capitalism, Tokyo Friend Park 2 focuses on cooperation. Teams of four compete in a wide variety of challenges, from launching their Velcro-covered bodies off a trampoline to stick to targets on a wall, to skewering takoyaki octopus balls or playing a giant game of Whack-A-Mole. It all climaxes with a ceremonial air hockey game against a team of comedians in outrageous costumes.
6. All-Star Thanksgiving
Western game shows typically fit neatly in a half-hour time slot, five days a week. But Japan does things a little differently. All-Star Thanksgiving only airs twice a year, but each episode stretches over five hours long—a true endurance challenge. On the show, between 150 and 200 celebrities of various stripes are assembled to answer quiz questions and compete in a wide variety of physical challenges until only one remains. What makes this show so epic is the bananas tasks they ask contestants to do: Walk up stairs covered in slippery goop? Sumo wrestling? Archery? Everything is on the table, and you never know what you’re going to get.
7. Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai
One programming type that has remained strong in Japan while dying out in the United States is the variety show, where hosts present performers, do interviews, and generally fill time. Over here, they’re mostly on in the late-night block and hosted by guys like Jimmy Fallon. But in Japan, the tradition is for comedy duos to do the job, and Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai is one of the most notorious. The competitive element comes in with the show’s “batsu games,” where the loser of a bet or challenge has to undergo some bizarre punishment. This show gets clipped on YouTube all the time, and for good reason—the batsu games, which range from getting shaved bald while skydiving to getting a blowgun shot in the butt every time you laugh, are insane.
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8. Battle for Money Sentouchuu
Premiering in 2012 on Fuji TV, Battle for Money Sentouchuu really epitomizes the difference between Japanese and American game shows. On our networks, contestants are few in number and humanized, seen as real people with backstories and lives outside of the show. But when the contestants are set loose on Battle for Money Sentouchuu with nothing but a dodgeball and their wits, it’s large-scale chaos. Getting hit with a ball eliminates a player, and if you’re the last one standing before time runs out, you win a pile of money.
9. Kinniku Banzuke
In general, most American game shows are challenges of the mind, not the body. Sure, there’s the odd American Ninja Warrior or Double Dare for the kids, but that’s about it. In Japan, though, they’re much more willing to test the whole person. The ridiculously popular Kinniku Banzuke (“Muscle Ranking”) pits professional athletes against everyday Joes and Janes in a wide range of physical challenges, including unicycling through obstacle courses, cracking out lightning-quick push-ups, and more. The show was canceled when two participants in the “Power Island” challenge were injured fending off heavy rolling balls.
10. Takeshi’s Castle
We’ll close with perhaps the Platonic ideal of the Japanese game show. Hosted by actor, director, and extremely weird dude Takeshi Kitano, Takeshi’s Castle premiered in 1986 and was an immediate hit. The titular castle was a massive set lorded over by Kitano, and in each episode from 88 to 142 people tried to surmount obstacles to slay the King in his lair. Not literally, of course. Challenges were wacky and inventive, with simulated earthquakes, swinging ropes, and brutally unfair random choices at every turn. You don’t need to speak a word of Japanese to love this show, but it was dubbed for US audiences anyways as MXC.
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