TV

Seeking kindness after a 'Terrace House' tragedy

A downside to the show's feedback loop was that audience reactions could be harsh and abusive

by Alyssa I. Smith

Staff writer

Shortly before her death on May 23, Hana Kimura, a Japanese professional wrestler and cast member of the reality TV series “Terrace House Tokyo 2019-2020,” posted a series of alarming messages on her social media accounts, some of which suggested she was the victim of relentless online harassment.

“Every day, I receive nearly 100 honest opinions and I cannot deny that I get hurt,” she tweeted.

Kimura’s sudden passing sparked an immediate outpouring of grief and sharp criticism of cyberbullying as reports began to suggest she took her own life. Fans of “Terrace House” were quick to point out that hurtful comments toward Kimura increased after March 31, when an episode aired in which she had a verbal altercation with a male housemate.

What was even more of a shock to many was that this happened to someone from “Terrace House,” a show that has a reputation for being uneventful to the point of being boring. The concept of the show is familiar: An unscripted look at an ever-changing cast of six strangers living together in a big house. Unlike other reality shows with the same premise, “Terrace House” isn’t driven by sex, feuds and competition. Instead it has been praised for its slow-burn drama that deals more with the intricacies of human relationships. A true sleeper hit, the show began airing on Fuji TV in 2012 and was picked up by Netflix in 2015, and then streamed to millions worldwide.

Although there is the occasional passionate flare-up, the housemates are generally kind, calm and supportive of one another. That can’t be said about the other big part of the show, an in-studio panel of six entertainers who watch along with the audience and provide humorous commentary on the housemates’ goings-on. Acting as stand-ins for the viewers, what they say can tread the line between being enlightening and cynical.

Another component of “Terrace House” that sets it apart from other reality shows is that audience engagement plays a significant part in pushing the narrative forward.

Since the housemates are meant to be going about their everyday lives (just with cameras tracking their every move), they’re never far from their phones and computers. Also, since new episodes are aired only two months or so after filming, the housemates often gather around the television to watch the show themselves. It’s all very meta.

As viewers, that means we get to see their reactions to how they’re being portrayed on the show after edits are made and the studio panel’s commentary is included. If they’ve come off particularly bad in a scene, they’ll head to the internet to see what other people are saying.

Former “Terrace House” cast member Lauren Tsai spoke about this unique experience to the website Hypebae in 2017.

“I would watch the show and think, ‘Oh my God! Is that me? Am I really like that? I hate myself,’” she said. “Everything people see about us on social media is what we choose to put out there. Being on a reality TV show, you have no control over what’s put in the show, how it’s cut.”

The downside to this meta feedback loop is that it’s not unusual for audience reactions to become harsh and abusive, and the members on “Terrace House” often adjust their behavior based on the attention they get. When cast members are harassed online, their reactions are filmed and aired, making the negative attention part of the narrative. So, even though the show is promoted as unscripted, the viewers essentially have a direct effect on what they’re seeing played out on screen. This ultimately is what seems to have caused Kimura so much distress.

In “Terrace House: Opening New Doors,” which premiered in 2017, Yui Tanaka’s storyline was heavily influenced by audience scrutiny. Tanaka, who dreamed of working in the wedding industry, revealed that she turned down job offers after receiving a barrage of negative comments that said the companies who hired her would be at a disadvantage. Viewers also labeled her as fake and inconsiderate. A major part of her “character arc” became how, after being reduced to tears by public scrutiny and giving up on her dream job, she attempted to change course and alter the audience’s perception of her.

In earlier episodes of “Terrace House Tokyo 2019-2020,” the franchise’s most recent installment, viewers watched Emika Mizukoshi have a tearful breakdown on camera after hearing the studio panel’s vulgar jokes about her, which were accompanied by a litany of hateful comments on social media. Afterward, she withdrew from the cameras and eventually moved out of the house. A similar arc, which was framed as a journey of self-actualization, involved Ruka Nishinoiri being repeatedly mocked by the panel and viewers for his apparent lack of ambition. In one of the most recent episodes, Toshiyuki Niino’s genuine surprise as he read online comments calling him a “pervert” for his aggressive pursuit of a female housemate was captured on camera and aired.

Although the cast members are typically aspiring models, artists, actors and entertainers in their early 20s looking to increase their fanbase, the show is usually their first proper experience in the spotlight. Watching them deal with panelist and audience critique — and then overcoming it — is part of what makes the show engaging. But the fact is, you can’t write a redemptive arc for someone who is not a scripted character. Kimura’s apparent suicide after the harmful criticism she received, makes it clear the show needs a shake-up and must address online abuse — whether it continues or not.

“When I was on ‘Terrace House,’ I also received a lot of heartless comments and was very hurt,” Mizukoshi wrote on Instagram, in response to Kimura’s death. “I got a lot of comments like, ‘This is just part of being on TV,’ ‘Don’t go on the show if you’re going to feel hurt over it,’ ‘Die,’ ‘Leave.’ But those in the public eye are still people, they have emotions. Words can be weapons. … We need to get rid of the idea that you can say anything to people just because they’re famous.”

The response to Kimura’s death has prompted leading politicians in Japan to offer their condolences and added impetus to discussions on establishing rules to prevent online harassment. In addition, Fuji TV and Netflix announced on May 27 that “Terrace House Tokyo 2019-2020” had been canceled, although the companies said nothing on the future of the franchise as a whole.

Simply canceling this installment shouldn’t be where efforts stop. The show has an opportunity to address its audience’s toxic tendencies. This problem is bigger than the show itself, however. At some point, cyberbullying is going to touch every single one of us in some way so it is up to us to stop it from getting more out of hand.

In its best moments, “Terrace House” reminds its fans that supporting others and deepening personal connections — no matter how fleeting — can change lives for the better. If the show doesn’t return, let’s hope that’s the legacy it leaves behind.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 119 in Japan for immediate help. The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5772-0992. You can also visit telljp.com. For those in other countries, visit www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html for a detailed list of resources and assistance.

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