Monday, July 7, 2014

The Glory of "Ninja Warrior" by Mike Fatum

The clock slowly ticks down as the man stares at the path in front of him. He rubs his hands to wipe the sweat from them, then dusts them in chalk. There's no time to think. He runs, plants his feet on a tiny trampoline, and soars through the air. His arms and legs fire out like pistons, smashing into the walls on either side, holding him in place. Without hesitation or planning, he fires forward, pushing himself across the wall. On the other side, he jumps through, narrowly missing a plummet into icy water below. He lands, but only for a moment before standing up and running forward. There are still ten more obstacles to go. This is Ninja Warrior.

It's a silly name, especially when you tag the "American" onto it. "American Ninja Warrior" sounds like one of the straight to DVD flicks that you find on Netflix in the middle of the night, about a white guy who's, for some reason, better at Karate than all of Japan. But in reality, American Ninja Warrior is a competition with a rich background and history, and one that is only this year finally getting its due in the United States.

Ninja Warrior first aired in the US on the now-sorta-defunct G4 Channel. Back then, the "American" wasn't part of the title, as the show was a subtitled version of a Japanese competition called Sasuke. Sasuke occurs once a year in Japan. In it, one hundred competitors attempt to take on an obstacle course set on a mountain named Midoriyama. (In America, we call it "Mount Midoriyama", but since 'yama' means mountain, that's kind of like saying ATM Machine. ) The obstacle course is set into three stages. The first is timed, and is technically the "easiest" course. About sixty to eighty of the participants fail here, unable to tackle obstacles like the Log Hang and the Warped Wall, all of which would be difficult enough to complete without a timer ticking down in your ear.

For the few men and women who pass the first stage, the second stage is more of the same, but harder. In this timed stage, the competitors must swing on chains over fire, and lift up giant walls while the merciless timer ticks down. After this stage, there are usually only 3 or four competitors left.

"Here, hang on to this with the tips of your pinkies, then jump to the next one." "...WHAT?"
The third stage finally offers a chance to escape the dreaded timer. The obstacles here are so difficult that the timer is taken away. Competitors have to hand by the tips of their fingers, climb a salmon ladder, swing from a chain, and lift giant walls out of their way. Only those with the strength, endurance and balance to pass this stage will face the dreaded stage three - scaling to the "peak" of Midoriyama.

Competitors have only thirty seconds to climb that steel structure. First, they must press with their arms and legs against two boards on either side. As they climb, the boards move outwards, meaning that going too slow here will make it impossible to progress. If they can pass that section, they must climb a rope the rest of the seventy four feet in order to make it to the top and claim total victory. In the history of Sasuke, only three men have ever made it to the top. Most of these return to compete in later years, only to come up short. Only one man - Yuuji Urishihara - has ever made it up to the top twice. To give you an idea of how difficult this really is, here is video of Makoto Nagano's winning run:

In America, the show ran for many years as a straight subtitled adaptation of Sasuke. They didn't try to make it a goofy dub like Most Extreme Challenge (called Takeshi's Castle in Japan), mostly because the subject matter was so much less silly than your stereotypical Japanese game show. American producers saw the heart and guts it takes to take on the mountain, and decided that was more interesting than trying to make it into something of their own.

But then, they started trying to change it anyway.

Like Iron Chef before it, producers decided to take a classic Japanese show that had caught on in America, slap "American" before the name and call it a day. And like Iron Chef, they decided to do it by changing everything people liked about it. The initial seasons of American Ninja Warrior were closer to a reality show than a competition to scale an unbeatable mountain. Competitors were chosen via videotape. Each week, they would have a new "challenge", something like running on a beach while carrying a heavy thing. It didn't capture any of the greatness that Sasuke had inspired - although the prize was getting flown to Japan to compete on the actual program. Several Americans did very well. One, Levi Meeuwenberg, was even the only competitor to make it to Stage 3 in Sasuke 20.

Despite this honor, the show itself was pretty untrue to the spirit of the competition, and as G4 was being slowly phased out, I assumed it had gone away entirely. So imagine my surprise when I turned on NBC over the Fourth of July weekend, and saw this:

The show has been given a new lease on life on NBC, which used to air reruns from G4. The old competition is gone, and in its place they have made a loving recreation of Sasuke, right here in America. In order to pad out the season, there's still a competition to see who gets to run the actual Midoriyama course, but this competition is played out with qualifying rounds in several cities, all using modified versions of the stage one course. The top thirty competitors in each of these courses - either the thirty who finish the course fastest, or the thirty who get the farthest the fastest - will go on to a final qualifying round, before they set up a new Midoriyama in Las Vegas. This new course seems to be just as brutal as the one in Japan, and so far, in three seasons, no one has managed to pass stage three.

They've just finished up the qualifying rounds, and the show is beginning to move towards the final conclusion. You should check it out - it's one of the few competitions on television that is designed to be really, really hard to win. There's no handholding in Ninja Warrior, just brutal obstacles on the way to total victory. It's what makes it one of the most satisfying TV shows to watch. For all the heart break, when someone finally does climb that final stage and hit the buzzer, you'll know they really, truly earned it. And that's a great thing in today's world of television.

American Ninja Warrior airs on NBC Mondays at 9/8c, and full episodes are available on and on

Mike Fatum is the Editor in Chief and Podcast Host for the Ace of Geeks. His main focus right now is surviving the next few weeks until Guardians of the Galaxy comes out.

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