Terrace House

This is maybe a weird thing to be writing about on this page, but over the past month or so I’ve become completely enamored with the Japanese reality show TERRACE HOUSE, most of which is available on Netflix. I’m not really a reality show viewer–I’ve never gotten on board with a domestic reality show with the exception of the deliberately subversive JOE SHMOE SHOW, and while I am and was a demon viewer of Korean outings THE GENIUS and SOCIETY GAME, those revolved more about game play than reality shenanigans, although there was admittedly a lot of crossover.

So what is it about TERRACE HOUSE that I like? Well, first off, it’s a very simple show–certain reviewers have dubbed it “the most boring reality show ever produced.” And that’s because, as is iterated a few times in the earliest episodes, the show comes complete with No Goals, No Rules, No Points. Rather, it simply takes six Japanese young people, always three men and three women, and has them co-habitate in a beautiful house together for as long as they like–everybody is free to leave the show whenever they want, but there are no evictions or strategies involved. It’s all voluntary.

In that, it reminds me very much of the original run of MTV’s THE REAL WORLD, a show that I followed when it was initially aired, but ultimately drifted away from as subsequent seasons were polluted by the fact that the new housemates had seen the prior seasons, and were more overt in their attempts to game the system in order to get more screen time or to advance their careers beyond the show (as a number of cast members went on to host later series for MTV.)

Which isn’t to say that TERRACE HOUSE is immune from this phenomenon either. The longer the show goes on, the more often you can see cast members come on board who know (or think they know) just what they’re letting themselves in for and attempting to game the system. This has led to a number of good moments where those very efforts have been folded into the show itself–most notably when 18 year old Idol singer Rikopin was carrying on a steamy affair with another much older cast member when the cameras were turned off but on screen insisted that everything was chaste and she wasn’t interested in him at all–at a certain point, another cast member frustrated by all of the deception calls this out in the middle of an episode, and the entire situation blows wide open.

But for the most part, TERRACE HOUSE is a lot more sedate than that. It is soap opera in its most essential form–the main question on everybody’s mind at any given moment being who likes who and who is going to move on who, and how that will play out. All of which is viewed through a very different cultural lens. It’s fascinating to me to watch this relationship dance in a world in which the rules and conditions are different than they are in the States. In the world of TERRACE HOUSE, even the simple act of holding hands carries with it a profound level of meaning, and so all of the cast members approach one another with porcupinelike precision, in the fear that either they or the subject of their affections will get hurt. Which happens often–as a dating program, the percentage rate of TERRACE HOUSE is pretty lousy. Which is part of the appeal. You can’t help but root for these kids as they awkwardly grope towards one another, mess things up, make bad decisions, get destroyed and pick themselves back up, and every once in a while find happiness.

Because anybody can leave the House at any given point, the cast is constantly rotating, with new people entering into the mix, changing all of the dynamics around. There’s nothing more exciting to the cast members or the audience than when a new member is making their way to the House of the first time, and everybody is about to find out just who they are. That all said, the cast members are clearly screened thoroughly and represent the cream of the crop of young Japanese society. There isn’t really anybody who is less than stunning on this series, a succession of models (the most common profession), actors, athletes, musicians and artists. And honestly, it’s pretty awesome to see what these young people have already achieved, and the lengths they go to in order to realize their ambitions for the future. The world of TERRACE HOUSE is rarefied air to be sure, but because of that, it’s also delicious to breathe.

In addition, just the environment is fascinating to me. This is why the Hawaii-set ALOHA STATE season took me a few episodes to get into–the setting, while no doubt novel to a Japanese audience, was simply too American to offer much distinctiveness to me. But I delight in seeing the various eateries and beaches and taverns and parks and job sites that the cast moves through. Even the frequent meals are interesting–it all feels very naturalistic despite the fact that every aspect of what is being seen is no doubt being tightly controlled through editing and more overt influence by the production team.

The other novel aspect of TERRACE HOUSE that separates it from most other reality shows is the fact that the series has a regular set of commentators, a collection of actors, models and comedians who mostly started out as fans of the series and who provide a running commentary on what they, and we, are watching in pretty much real time. When TERRACE HOUSE first began, there was only a single host, the matriarchal Yukiko Ehara, better known as You, who would do the lead-in from the back of a town car driving through Tokyo. After the initial spate of episodes, the set-up expanded to bring in a second more youthful voice, that of Reini Trendl (Aka “Torichan”), an elegant and proper girl of the same age demographic as most of the cast members, and thus able to provide a common perspective. But the show really broke open shortly after that when the cast was expanded to include four more commentators, and their observations and reactions were cut back to regularly throughout the show.

The additions included three comedians, who brought a lot of humor and fun to the proceedings. The eldest, Yoshimi Tokui, is simultaneously funny while also possessing a great insight into human psychology. He’s among the most animated of the presenters, often bantering with You and trading barbs and thoughts with the rest of the panel. Comedienne Azusa Babazono is more reserved, often seeming not to contribute very much–like many Japanese ladies, she’s a bit more reserved than her male counterparts. But every so often she comes forth with a comment that simply flattens the room. And by far the most lively of the commentators is Ryouta Yamasato, who is half-genuine and half-plays a character, and who is drawn to drama and conflict and is absolutely savage in his analysis, for all that he clearly loves the series and its set-up. There is also a sixth chair, which is typically taken up by a young male musician or actor–the composition of the commentators matches that of the participants–but that role changes often, and most of those who have filled it haven’t been especially memorable to me (though they’d all be known to Japanese audiences–all of the commentators have successful solo careers apart from the show. So it’s very much a celebrity panel.)

TERRACE HOUSE was wildly successful in Japan even before it was exported–so successful, in fact, that during the initial run of the show on Fuji TV, the length of the series was extended so long that the production company ran beyond the end of their lease on the titular House, and so the entire cast had to pack up and move to a new location between weeks! Since then, each subsequent series has set up shop in a new location, so there have been a series of Terrace Houses scattered across Japan (with one in Hawaii.) Netflix picked up co-production the show after its initial run and continued it for several more years, and those seasons are readily available in the U.S. But the original series never made it over (which can become confusing when cast members, supporting players and locations from the original series show up on the later shows with little context given.) Consequently, I went out and sourced for myself a run of the first 98 episodes run, which I’ve been watching in tandem with the later episodes–an experience much like reading AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and MARVEL TALES at the same time, which I did as a kid.

The original show wrapped up and culminated in a movie: TERRACE HOUSE: CLOSING DOORS. I have absolutely no idea how one would turn this series into a film, and I’m not yet up to that point in my viewing–but I secretly hope that all of the former cast members come back to team up against Thanos.

The show is also weirdly recursive, in a way that can often be a detriment to the participants. As they’re living together and their lives are being filmed, episodes are being edited together and broadcast right behind them–so the events on screen are only two to three weeks behind reality. This puts the cast members in a weird pressure cooker, in that every aspect of their lives is getting put on television in real time. The cast often (or by some accounts, is required to) watches the episodes as they go out, which means that they are often becoming privy to the private conversations of their fellows. This led to one of the most spellbinding emotional car crashes of all time, a spectacular moment of television for all that it is enormously heartbreaking and humiiating.

I don’t know that I can do this justice here, but the situation is this: perennial romantic washout Tetsuya Sugaya (aka Tecchan) is romantically interested in new housemate Miwako Kakei (aka Mi-ko), who also seems taken with him–they set up a date in which he teaches her to skateboard, and by necessity there’s a lot of physical contact going on, moreso than is typical on the program. Tecchan is supported in his romantic overtures by his buddy and roommate kickboxer Daiki Miyagi. But in a conversation with a friend outside of the house following their date, Mi-ko confesses to her friend that she doesn’t see Tecchan as a romantic possibility–but that she’s extremely interested in Daiki, himself just out of another relationship. But because everybody is tentative (to say nothing of dealing with the demands of their jobs and lives) nothing much advances for a week or two. And then…

…everybody piles into the screening room to watch the live episode that the viewing audience saw just two or three weeks earlier. And consequently, every viewer knows exactly what is to come: Mi-ko is going to learn about the depths of Tecchan’s feelings for her, and Tecchan is going to discover that Mi-ko is not only totally uninterested in him, but that she’s really got a thing for Daiki. Daiki, for his part, doesn’t see her that way–so nobody walks out of this thing unscathed. And it all plays out excruciatingly slowly in real time–Mi-ko, having heard Tecchan’s declarations of his interest and knowing what he’s about to hear, bolts from the room–and Tecchan is hit full-on by a car, while Daiki struggles through a series of emotions: astonishment, bemusement at his friend’s misfortune, sympathy for his buddy, and a searching of his own feelings toward Mi-ko. Watching this episode, I literally said “Oh no” loud enough and often enough that my wife came into the room to make sure that everything was all right with me.

And it’s exactly these moments of emotional extreme that make the show so addictive. You really do come to find yourself rooting for these people and hoping that they can find happiness with one another–and even though there’s as much heartbreak as there is joy, it’s actually the journey that is the most affecting. I mean, I was lousy at dating, I was no good at it at all, and I would never willingly go back to that life, but watching this series makes me remember on a profound level how those younger days felt, and the things that I experienced when I was the same age as these young people.

No discussion of TERRACE HOUSE could ever be complete without a focus on the show’s acknowledged MVP and self-styled “legend” Seina Shimabukuro. One of the original six members to move in at the very beginning of the series, Seina was clearly a favorite of both the viewers and the production team, and after leaving she came back and did additional stints in the House, for a total of four times over a period of five years. Seina was the greatest shit-stirred in the program’s history, but one without any real malice in her heart–she’d move from thought to word to deed in an instant, and her arrival inevitably meant that events were going to sharply accelerate. Seina was a diva but in all the best ways–hard-drinking, hard-partying, but with the essence of a big sister to all of her assorted housemates and a hidden vulnerability that would show up from time to time, for all that she could be tough as nails when called to–her stunning shutdown of would-be suitor Masato Yukawa (aka Ma-kun) would shrivel the balls of even the most confident of men. She’d be a brilliant character if scripted.

Also, sadly, it’s impossible to talk about TERRACE HOUSE today without acknowledging the death of cast member Hana Kimura just a few short months ago. Hana, a pro-wrestler by profession, apparently committed suicide after being harassed and cyberbullied through social media after an incident broadcast on the show. Her death has brought a lot of awareness to what is now being described as toxic behavior both behind the scenes at TERRACE HOUSE and among its online fan community. As somebody who has experienced this sort of targeting firsthand and seen what it’s done to other people in my field, my heart goes out to both Hana and her family. I haven’t yet watched the series of the show that she was in–both because I haven’t yet gotten up to it and because I’ve been keeping that whole mess somewhat at a distance, afraid of how it was going to impact on my enjoyment of the series. So I can’t formulate any cogent thoughts, apart from just a general sense of sadness about the whole situation, and the fact that a human being was driven to such extremes.

TERRACE HOUSE filming had already been paused due to the COVID-19 quarantine, but Kimura’s death appears to have brought the show to an unexpected finish–Fuji TV and Netflix appear to have stated that they won’t be carrying on with new episodes or a new series. And perhaps that’s for the best. Still, the 400-or-so episodes that were made still exist, and can yet be enjoyed.

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