In the English-speaking world, Japanese TV in 2018 was celebrated for how boring it could get. But it was anything but domestically, where viewers questioned norms and helped nudge forward programs with progressive politics.
However, no production from Japan was bigger overseas this year than “Terrace House.” The reality show, which follows several young people living together and sometimes juggling relationships with one another, managed to become an international hit on streaming service Netflix. That’s a rarity for Japanese TV creations, save for anime and viral game show clips.
But “Terrace House” won praise for being calming, not crazy. The latest in the series, “Terrace House: Opening New Doors,” generated a consistent drip of online content, nearly all parroting the same idea that, unlike the messy drama of Western reality shows, it offers something more real and inviting. It reached a point where coverage of the show went beyond creatively bankrupt introductions and inspired person-ranking lists, odes to panelist fashion and explorations of the season’s toxic moments. Its international success provides clues as to how Japanese media can make gains abroad, primarily by being easy and convenient enough for the average viewer to consume.
The program is also popular in Japan, though looking at how it’s received here warps the “boring” image significantly. No show where the participants know they are being filmed should be taken as normal, and the idea that everyone involved isn’t trying to further their own career is naive. (Takayuki Nakamura (“Taka”) the snowboarder stayed on for what felt like an eternity, only to leave after securing a new contract with his sponsors.) One of the most compelling stretches on “Opening New Doors” came in a multi-episode arc where participants watched themselves — and saw the hosts mock them, before revealing how much hate they get online. It showed that plenty of bad vibes lurk in the “Terrace House” world.
Social media played a central role in domestic broadcast options this year. Some of the most surprising offerings of 2018 found success by inspiring rabid followings on Twitter and generating episode recaps on web sites. Even more unexpected, they were de facto educational programming. NHK’s puppet-centric “Nehorin Pahorin” spotlighted offbeat lifestyles and careers, while bigger still was the national broadcaster’s “Don’t Sleep Through Life!” Half quiz show and half knowledge dump, the weekly program stars a semi-unsettling mascot named Chiko-chan who is prone to screaming at guests when they get an answer wrong. Viewers love it.
But the internet’s biggest contribution to Japanese TV in 2018 was as a source for criticism. This trend started a few hours before everyone flipped the calendar from 2017. New Year’s Eve staple “Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!!” kicked off with comedian Masatoshi Hamada dressed as Eddie Murphy, complete with blackface.
That was a distressing sight in Japanese entertainment, but not unfamiliar. Go on YouTube — where in 2018 it has become all too easy to pull up old episodes of TV shows — and see how far into a comedy program you get before someone in blackface and an oversized afro pops up (or until some other stereotype gets wheeled out). On top of that, more progressive YouTubers have created shaming compilations that show the extent of sexism and violence against women on TV. The Hamada blackface bungle brought out a familiar choir of voices trying to downplay it, but even more online were wondering why it is still happening in 2018, and the damage it’s doing to the country’s reputation.
The past 12 months were defined by viewers pushing back at what used to be the norm. Besides blackface, “Gaki no Tsukai” inspired complaints about a Muay Thai-style roundhouse kick to TV personality Becky. Similar outcries followed comedian Ken Horiuchi throwing people into boxes and using a woman like a broom, and an Abema TV segment in which women were actually licked for failing a challenge. Even the relatively light “Ainori Love Wagon: Asian Journey” — a reality show on Netflix with a little more bite than “Terrace House” — came under fire for seemingly enabling substance abuse in one participant to generate drama.
Plenty are now speaking up online about objectionable content, but that doesn’t mean Japanese TV in general is featuring many new voices or perspectives. Some of the biggest drama hits of 2018 cover well-worn territory, ranging from a remake of the American show “Suits,” a live action remake of manga “Kyo Kara Ore Wa!!,” and all kinds of sequels.
But the situation is shifting. “Miss Sherlock” placed women front and center in the well-worn world of Sherlock Holmes, while LGBTQ representation picked up as well with “Nehorin Pahorin” devoting an episode to same-sex couples and “Terrace House” welcoming its first LGBTQ participant into the house. Most notably was the drama series “Ossan’s Love,” which focuses on gay relationships in modern Japan. It follows many Japanese drama cliches, but that’s part of the charm and importance — LGBTQ characters aren’t treated as comedy or outliers, but rather plugged right into familiar scenarios. And it was a hit in Japan, dominating social media and prompting a forthcoming movie.
There’s still plenty of progress to be made, but 2018 saw viewers and companies push domestic TV into a better direction. Nothing boring about that.