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Comparative Analysis: Ninja Warrior

June 4, 2012

A few weeks ago, I posted about the Japanese TV show Sasuke, a sort of fitness-oriented obstacle course game show. Some readers reminded me that in addition to airing episodes of the original television show on G4, the past few years have also seen the development and broadcast of an officially licensed American spin-off, much like The Office, or Iron Chef. As with any translation effort, some changes need to be made in the localization process to account for both cultural and linguistic differences. By reviewing the changes they made to the rule-sets, we can determine something about how the design goals differed between the American and Japanese design teams, differences that may be reflective of their respective cultures, or simply of the production teams behind each show. Note that I haven’t watched a complete season of the American version, these impressions are based purely on the few semi-final episodes that I have seen, and may not be fully accurate with regards to the final rounds. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to get any definite confirmation of the structure of the final rounds, so I’m working off some assumptions.

Some changes are obvious, although relatively insignificant. The higher production values and cleaner, better lit courses with more foam padding of the American version are immediately noticeable, but amount to relatively little in the competitive dynamic of the shows. Similarly, the different styles of commentating, replacing the exuberant shouting of the lone Japanese  announcer with the relatively staid back and forth between the play-by-play announcer and color commentator reflects different cultural norms, and while the effect on the viewer is obvious, the effect on the mechanics of the course are negligible. Many of the obstacles are familiar, either only slightly modified or taken wholesale from the Japanese version. This, too provides more similarity than difference between the two shows. From a design perspective, the differences lie elsewhere, in the meta-goals and structure provided. These changes shift the overall goal from a contest of strength, an exploration of man vs. the limits of his own endurance, into a competition between men for victory.

The difference between competing with your own limits vs. competing with other players is a fairly porous one. Almost anybody who’s ever competed in a Track and Field event knows how easily one can shift their goals from “first place” to “personal best”, a shift that sometimes takes place between the starting gun and the finish line. But at their core, Track and Field events are essentially physical challenges, not competitive ones. The arbitrary assignment of points to finishing order is a design band-aid, a sop to the need for spectators and contestants alike to have a single winner. The changes implemented to American Nina Warrior represent a similarly forced conversion.

The most obvious change made in American Ninja isn’t a change to the rules of the obstacle courses at all. Rather, it’s a change to the reward. In American Ninja Warrior, contestants are competing for a $500,000 cash prize, which goes to the winner1. (All the publicity I’ve seen appears to assume that one of the contestants will win this prize.) This immediately implies that there is a winner, a seemingly simple change that in fact contains two significant assumptions:

  1. At least one person will win.
  2. Exactly one person will win.

Neither of these assumptions can be applied to the Japanese Sasuke. A brief review of the history of Sasuke reveals that the first assumption is anything but sage. In 27 seasons, only 4 people have ever completed the course. Similarly, the second assumption, while never broken historically, is also not guaranteed in Sasuke. In two separate seasons, 5 people qualified for the final stage. Although neither of these seasons produced more than one winner, there are no rules in place to guarantee this.

The assumption of completion trickles down into the earlier stages. In Sasuke, there isn’t even any guarantee that contestants will clear the earlier rounds. While there is similarly no guarantee in the American version, the course was made substantially shorter, making completion more likely. In order to manage the resulting higher number of qualifiers from the earlier rounds, the American version therefore introduces an additional ranking mechanism: completion time. Whereas the Sasuke time limit  counted down to serve as a disqualification point, the American version counts up to measure the time to completion, with contestants given as much time as necessary to complete the course. However, only the fastest times move on to the next stage in the competition.

This is where the modifications really show the conversion from being about the contestants against the course to being about the contestants against each other. As each qualifying round episode progresses, we can actually keep a running tally of which contestants are currently set to advance, and which ones are being bumped off the leader boards. Between the episodes, American Ninja Warrior introduces the familiar concept of regional brackets in order to help us keep track of which contestants advance from each region. All this provides a greater sense of order and progression to the American version.

There’s a tendency to dismiss this as a “dumbing-down” of the course. Guaranteeing that a larger number of contestants continues past the qualifying rounds can be seen as giving the American Ninja Warrior contestants a free ride. However, there are good reasons for the changes. If nothing else, it reflects the fact that America is so much larger than Japan, and that some adjustments must be made to account for the significantly larger number of contestants that the country can provide. If these additional qualification rounds need to be held, it’s not unreasonable to film and televise them as well, especially since entertaining failure is one of the prime selling points of the show to begin with, and failure is more frequent in the early rounds. Without some kind of bracketing system, this could quickly get confusing to the viewer. The brackets and rankings give them a sense of what to expect from each contestant in the later rounds even if they aren’t personally familiar with the contestants’ past performances.

There are some other interesting differences in the overall presentation of the shows that reveal the divergent goals that the producers may have had in mind. For instance, the brief contestant biographies shown before some contestants run tend to emphasize athletic training and physical prowess in American Ninja Warrior, whereas the producers of Sasuke seem to prefer to emphasize the mundanity of the contestants everyday lives and day jobs. This seems to promote the idea of American Ninja Warrior contestants as elite athletes rather than simply talented and dedicated civilians. This, too, meshes  with the overall presentation of American Ninja Warrior. By splitting the contest across multiple episodes in an elimination bracket, it recalls the format of a professional sport moreso than that of a game show.

We could speculate about how the selection of where to focus each of these versions reveals something about the character of each host nation. Perhaps we could discuss a cultural milieu that is more accepting of insurmountable challenges and the inevitability of failure. Or, one that is more focussed on a co-operative spirit and the importance of working together towards a common goal vs. a culture of individual exceptionalism and personal achievement. Those kinds of discussions are fascinating, but rather outside the purview of this site. For our purposes, we can acknowledge that when taken altogether, the seemingly minor changes made in the American version amount to a broad revision on the goals of the competition, and a concomitant change in the way that the spectator audience interacts with the show. Even a nearly pure physical challenge such as an obstacle course finds itself within the scope of a designed experience, whether it be the contestant’s experience of the course itself, or merely the experience of the viewing audience watching on the television.

1.There is a cash prize for completing the final round in Sasuke. However, the amount is much lower, and there is little to no emphasis on this in the show or its promotional materials. Return to post.

One Comment
  1. I know this article is a couple years old now, but I was wondering if you found out whether or not the American version’s finals in Vegas are run all in 1 day. One of the elements of the Japanese version is that the competitors that make it to the 3rd and 4th stages have to deal with the fatigue of having run the previous stages earlier in the same day. When you watch the Japanese show, you can see that it starts in the morning and is well after dark by the time it’s over.

    In the American show, it seems to all take place at night. This leads me to wonder if it’s filmed over several days, which would mean that the competitors, running the stages on different nights, would be fully rested before each stage, unlike the Japanese show.

    I might be wrong about how they do it, but if I’m right, the Americans would certainly have an advantage, making the entire course easier to run.

    Do you have any thoughts on that?


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