On April 18, TV Asahi premiered a new quiz show called “Thumbs Up,” hosted by Monta Mino. Until this show, Asahi was the only commercial network that hadn’t hired Mino to helm a regular series, which means the gruff emcee is now approaching omnipresence. He hosts eight prime-time programs a week in addition to a Saturday morning talk show and his daily noontime job on Nippon TV’s long-running housewife advice show, “Omoikkiri TV,” not to mention the half-dozen specials he appears in every season.
Mino-ization means more than simply seeing Monta’s mug every night. It means that Mino’s peculiar blend of warmth, tough love and patronizing banter has become inextricably associated with a certain kind of programming. He cultivated this style on “Omoikkiri,” mainly in the call-in segment when anonymous housewives phoned him and complained about bossy mothers-in-laws, errant husbands and ungrateful children.
Unlike a lot of Japanese TV stars, Mino wasn’t an overnight sensation. He started out, as many TV announcers of his generation did, in radio in the early ’70s. But since his employer, Bunka Hoso, did not have a television affiliate, he wasn’t automatically promoted to the small screen. When he did finally make it to TV, he remained as a voice, best remembered as the wisecracking voiceover-narrator of the seasonal baseball bloopers specials.
Fortunately, he had a family business to fall back on, and perhaps it was the experience of running an enterprise that gave him the authority to comment on how others should navigate their lives. In any case, he was the perfect emcee for the type of variety show that emerged in the late ’90s and which focused on real-life problems.
On “The Judge” (Fuji TV, Friday), he holds forth on the intricacies of the Japanese civil and criminal code as it affects everybody. On “Jikadanpan!” (TV Tokyo, Monday), he encourages people to lodge formal complaints against individuals and organizations and then followup on their complaints. On “Kiki Ippatsu SOS” (Fuji TV, Monday) he offers advice on how to survive life-threatening emergencies.
Mino’s most famous job, as the host of the Japanese version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” (Fuji TV, Thursday) seems to falls outside the utilitarian parameters that characterize the above-mentioned shows, but in a sense they are similar.
The rules on “Millionaire” are the same as the ones on the overseas versions, but in Japan we are also told the reasons the contestants need money. In no other country where the show has been adapted are the contestants required to explain in detail, with accompanying video illustration, why the money is so vital to them.
“Thumbs Up” extrapolates on this aspect, so much so that the contestant’s perceived need for the prize money is actually factored into his or her chances of winning it.
Before each show, the studio audience ranks the four contestants in ascending order of need after listening to their reasons for wanting the 10 million yen jackpot. The two contestants ranked lowest compete against each other first, with the winner going on to the next round, and so forth. Thus, the contestant who is ranked the neediest only has to compete once, whereas the one ranked least needy has to compete three times to reach the final round.
The competitive component is based on the extremely simple jan-ken-pon (scissors-paper-stone) game, which only takes a few seconds. Mino’s main job is to clarify the problems that have forced these people to come on the show. In the premiere, the final two contestants were a woman who needed money to pay for her boyfriend’s divorce so that he would be free to marry her and a single mother whose house burned down.
It doesn’t take much imagination to guess that the latter woman was deemed the neediest by the audience. While Mino commiserated over her tragedy, the camera’s gaze fixed on the expectant faces of her three children, as well as on the embarrassed countenance of her opponent’s boyfriend, the one who can’t raise the divorce money by himself because he’s already in debt. Before actually doing jan-ken-pon, the two women had to look each other in the eye and say why they deserved the money.
The woman who lost her house lost the game; an outcome that seems unfair given the way her situation was presented. But, as Mino points out on all his shows, that’s life. “More challenges await her,” he said as the woman and her sad children shuffled away.
Exploiting the misfortunes of real people for the entertainment of the TV-viewing public is nothing new, but pinning their redemption on the outcome of a game of luck and presenting that as entertainment is pretty bold. Mino is important to the show because he is famous for being blunt about life’s vicissitudes. He neutralizes any misgivings the audience might have watching people win and lose at life by making it clear that life itself is one big game show.
Mino even relishes this dynamic. In the final round, the winner has to compete against the emcee himself for the 10 million yen prize. Mino is also famous for his exaggerated facial expressions, which he uses to advantage on “Millionaire” when he leaves a contestant in tortured suspense waiting to find out if the given answer is correct. The contestants on “Thumbs Up” have to read Mino’s expression to figure out which jan-ken-pon hand pattern he has selected.
In the promotional materials, Mino says that he is determined to not let anyone win the ultimate prize, no matter how needy they are. That, after all, is what they pay him for.