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Getting to the bottom of a slippery game show gone viral

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

No aspect of Japanese pop culture titillates the world more than the country’s game shows. From references on “The Simpson’s” to inspiring Western riffs on subjects such as “Banzai” and “I Survived A Japanese Game Show,” the idea of wacky creations bordering on torture have played a central place in foreign perceptions of Japan. One of my first exposures to Japanese TV came from a clip of a program where contestants were socked in the testicles.

A reminder of this fascination popped up in November. The YouTube channel Just Wow Me uploaded a clip titled “Funny Japanese Game Show Slippery Stairs — Just Hilarious,” featuring footage from the 2016 edition of TBS’ “All-Star Kanshasai” variety show, wherein six celebrities try to climb up a staircase covered in lubricant. Two days later, tech writer Juan Buis tweeted a clip of the show that went viral, spreading across the platform and then being aggregated by web sites across the internet.

However people shared the segment online, the language used to describe the clip had a familiar ring to it, with adjectives such as “insane” and “diabolical” being applied liberally. In the tradition of bagel heads and used underwear vending machines, the segment allowed folks online to indulge in “weird” Japan. And yet, it was the first time “wacky Japanese game show” footage (alongside tweets about a “game show” in which participants in an apartment try to figure out with their teeth what’s chocolate and what’s not) went viral in the context-allergic atmosphere of the internet in 2017, showing just how much misinformation can spread.

The event, though, does deserve the accolades. It’s a funny contest and often tips into ridiculous territory (though, c’mon, Human Tetris still beats this). TBS clearly knows this, too. Nuru nuru (slimy) events have been part of the “All-Star” show since 2006, initially via sumo wrestling but transforming into “Nuru Nuru Treasure Hunter” — “Slippery Stairs” as it was incorrectly called in English — in 2016 (with the same general idea appearing on other shows previously). They brought the segment back in 2017. Does TBS have a dedicated budget for lubricant?

But here’s where things get murky — the viral clip comes from 2016 and it’s not clear why this particular version ended up on Just Wow Me’s YouTube channel.

Yet the moment it started gaining online traction, it became something seemingly every blog felt compelled to comment on. This is how internet media operates today: Everything is a reaction and it needs to be fast, even at the expense of details or facts and preferably full of hyperbole. The situation gets even more slippery when you factor in the topic of conversation playing out in a different language.

English posts about the segment form a sort of broken puzzle of information that, when put together, reveals about 30 percent of what’s going on. Most call it an independent game show, when it’s really a mini-game on a variety program that’s primarily a quiz. Many carry an only-in-Japan tone, save for Vice TV hosts Desus and Mero, who correctly call it “the most adult version of (U.S. kids game show) ‘Double Dare’ I’ve ever seen.” They still call it “Japan’s weirdest game show,” which is still less eye-rolling than GQ labeling it “humanity’s greatest creation.”

All of this is mostly harmless airballing. But certain recurring elements — which have long accompanied Japanese TV footage — present it in a more exoticizing light. Numerous sites such as Deadspin reference Sisyphus, a Greek story involving eternal punishment, promoting the misleading idea that Japanese programs punish regular contestants and hide a sadistic side (in reality, everyone taking part is a willing celebrity). There’s also a mocking attitude to a lot of it, summed up best by Just Wow Me’s own video description — “Japanese people never fail to make us laugh.”

Many Japanese have expressed surprise at the overseas perceptions of the show. Maybe that’s because this kind of programming — a blend of goofy game and prank — pops up as part of variety shows somewhat regularly? Or maybe they wish TV here was as consistently entertaining as the stairs game? Many of the variety shows in Japan feature people eating food, so the idea that Japanese TV is steps above the rest of the world might be the most misleading element of all.