by Thom Stark
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 is 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. Tonight, July 9, 2012, is the final broadcast in a series that has run for six previous weekly installments, 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.
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 poorly to 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 managable 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”.