“Pole dancer! Pole dancer!! Pole dancer!!!” From the bellowing announcement thumping through the speakers, you might think we’re in a night club. We’re not. But, without doubt, the location is just as fabled as many nocturnal haunts, and the atmosphere is just as electric.
Welcome to what has become known in more than 150 countries around the world as “sacred” Mount Midoriyama, an outdoor set in Yokohama operated by Tokyo Broadcasting System Television (TBS), where one of the biggest franchises in Japanese TV history is filmed up to twice a year. Welcome to “Sasuke” or, as it is known on U.S.-based cable and terrestrial channels: “Ninja Warrior.”
It’s an early morning in mid July and, under overcast skies, filming has just begun for the 27th edition of “Sasuke,” which will be aired in Japan as a single four-hour special on Oct. 3 and in other countries over multiple episodes starting in March.
The competitor on the starting platform is, you guessed it, a professional pole dancer — a man, as it happens. He has a name, but at “Sasuke” competitors are their professions as much as they are people.
Over the course of the day, a baker, truck driver, arm-wrestling champion, student, salaryman, fireman, fisherman, futon cleaner, shoe salesman and more than 90 other men and women will steel themselves to assault the four-stage network of walls, ropes, rolling logs, ladders and other obstacles that make up the gruelling “Sasuke” course.
The program’s commentators, whose banter is not only recorded for the TV show as the participants actually compete, but is also broadcast through speakers placed around the venue, emphasize the occupations of the competitors for one special reason: It suggests to viewers that the competitors are just ordinary people. “That could be me,” we’re supposed to think.
As veteran “Sasuke” competitor — and one of only three people to have completed the course and achieve what’s known as “total victory” — fisherman Makoto Nagano, tells The Japan Times, “This really is the Olympics of no-names.”
‘Next up is Kazuya Naka. 29 years of age and a competitor in the world championships of pole dancing!” enthuses one of the Japanese commentators as Naka salutes the crowd.
In an indication of the good-natured spirit of the event, competitors such as Naka don’t use the last five or so seconds before they compete to do stretches or pray or yell. They do little performances of the skills needed for their real jobs. The karate expert smashes tiles, the futon cleaner lifts up a pile of futons. Naka, the pole-dancer, has brought along a free-standing pole, so he dances.
“Wow, what wonderful dancing! Ohh! He’s like a carp flag in the wind,” cries the commentator, as Naka holds himself out at a 90-degree angle to the pole.
And, as Naka is still lowering himself to the ground, the starter’s countdown begins — beep, beep, beep, bong — and he’s off, launching himself into the first obstacle, the so-called Step Slider, leaping in succession between four steeply sloping boards and then onto a hanging rope to swing across a pool of water to another sloping board. All the while, the commentator urges him on with increasingly enthusiastic calls: “Pole dancer!”
“Sasuke” was first staged in 1997 as a special edition of “Kinniku Banzuke,” a team-based sports program that tested competitors’ strength. Both programs followed the lead of another popular TBS show, “Takeshi’s Castle,” which aired from 1986 to 1989.
However, “Sasuke” was different from its predecessors. As Laura Civiello, a vice president at American cable network G4, which eventually acquired broadcasting rights for “Sasuke” in 2006, says, “In the past this kind of physical competition had either been played for laughs, or it was an athletic, sports, organized competition.”
Where “Kinniku Banzuke” tended towards serious competition and “Takeshi’s Castle” was played for laughs, “Sasuke” found a middle ground. Sure it’s organized — the preshoot orientation attests to that (“If your feet touch the water on the Step Slider then you will be disqualified,” and so on) — but at the same time, it retains an air of good-natured fun.
Probably the key to that balance is the fact that “Sasuke” is not a competition between participants so much as it is a group effort between them against the course.
“There is no limit to how many people can achieve total victory,” explains the fisherman, Nagano. “You want to get there yourself, but there is no motivation to wish that the other participants fail.”
Thus after each round, whether competitors have cleared the round or not, they can be seen offering advice to each other.
“Keep your chest flat against the wheel!” they and other onlookers yell as one man moves to the Rolling Escargot — a particularly problematic contraption resembling a stagecoach wheel that competitors have to cling to as it spins.
“A lot of TV these days is about you versus the other guy,” says Civiello. “This is totally different. It’s you versus yourself; you versus the course. And that means there is a lot of heart, a lot of honor involved.”
“Make sure you get a ton of speed on them balls”: This advice for tackling another obstacle, the brand new Pendulum Balls, is in U.S.-accented English and comes from Travis Furlanic, one of 10 Americans who G4 has brought over to Japan specifically to compete in “Sasuke” this time around.
After buying the rights to “Sasuke” in 2006, G4 branded it “Ninja Warrior” and began airing it in a late-night slot.
“One good decision we made was to retain the Japanese commentary and to subtitle it,” Civiello says. “The commentary really adds a lot of fun to it. It’s like soccer telecasts. People like that over-the-top Spanish-style commentary.”
The first season of “Ninja Warrior,” which consisted of the most recent edition of the Japanese “Sasuke” edited into a season of six episodes, proved popular enough to be promoted to prime time the next spring.
“We began receiving letters from viewers saying they wanted to compete themselves,” Civiello explains.
Soon G4 began holding video-based auditions for up to two American competitors to make the trip to “sacred” Mount Midoriyama.
Then, in 2009, they expanded that process, building their own obstacle course and holding preliminary rounds and a boot camp for “Sasuke” hopefuls. After that, the whole U.S.-based auditioning process was branded “American Ninja Warrior” and an entirely new spin-off program was born.
The final episode of the third season of “American Ninja Warrior,” which followed the fortunes of the 10 Americans who were eventually chosen to come and compete in Japan, aired in August on the major U.S. terrestrial network NBC.
Meanwhile, although “Sasuke” is already broadcast in 153 countries and territories around the world, TBS is also looking to strengthen its foothold in Asia.
This past May, the Malaysian government sponsored their own “Sasuke” trials as part of a national fitness drive. The winner, Farid Isham, who is better known as “Cat,” was at Mount Midoriyama to compete.
“I’m an Internet entrepreneur,” he tells The Japan Times between stages. “But I train pretty much full time in parkour.”
The synergy between “Sasuke” and the recently popular urban sports of parkour and free-running perhaps explains part of the program’s international appeal.
Parkour is the art of moving over obstacles in the most efficient manner, and, as Cat explains it, “It’s fun because it’s like you’re a kid again — running and jumping.”
Entering the “Sasuke” preliminary competition gave Cat “a focus for my training,” he says. “I saw it on TV and thought, ‘I can do that,’ so I made it my goal.”
A similar motivation can be detected in most of the competitors at “Sasuke.”
“I’ve always watched ‘Sasuke,’ since I was a kid,” explains 29-year-old tree-doctor Kazuma Asa. “I thought, ‘I could do this’ and so I started training and training. In 2008, I got in the competition through the preliminary trials, but I bombed out in the first stage. That made me more motivated to try again.”
Other “Sasuke” competitors are so devoted to their training that they build their own “Sasuke” sets. One, Ryo Matachi, 26, says he even built a set in his bedroom, despite it being just 4.5 tatami mats (6 sq. meters) in size.
To ensure that all participants compete under the same conditions, each “Sasuke” is shot in a single session that can take up to 24 hours.
As the competition nears its finale, the clock has ticked way past midnight and the floodlit course appears to glow in the pitch-black night. How far will the remaining competitors get? Will someone achieve “total victory?”
Of course, one of the very few to know what that’s like is fisherman Nagano. He’s standing in the light by one of the sets.
“The reason this program is so popular is that the desire to test yourself, to show what you can do and show how strong you are, is universal,” he says. “It’s a place where you can shine, no matter what your occupation. I’m just a fisherman, but I’ve come here, I’ve shown people what I can do, and it has got me fans around the world. It can change your outlook on life,” he continued.
But will it change his life?
“Of course not,” he says. “I’m still a fisherman. That will always be my job.”
“Sasuke” airs from 7 p.m. till 10:48 p.m. on Oct. 3 on TBS and affiliated networks.