The wildly popular Japanese variety show Susume! Denpa Shonen kicked off in the summer of 1992 and ran until January 1998, when it continued as Susunu! Denpa Shonen until its September 29, 2002 finale. The series made typical reality show challenges seem like child’s play, placing contestants — mostly aspiring comedians — in outrageous situations that pushed the limits of their physical and mental endurance. Below, Mr. Toshio Tsuchiya, Denpa Shonen‘s producer, tells us more about the series. This week, you can catch the start another installment of the series, R-Mania, on Hulu. In this round, two comedians who think they’re on their way to dinner are blindfolded and whisked away to a deserted island. You can check out the first episode here:
How did Denpa Shonen start out?
Up to that point, programs were basically scripted, meaning the performers and crew knew exactly what was going to happen in the show. I broke that mold by venturing into the ground-breaking territory of unscripted programming, which turned out to be Denpa Shonen.
The show started out by catching celebrities off-guard, without scheduling prior appointments or obtaining their permission, and asking them to do something for us. In the third year of the show, we moved on to other projects.
In 1996, we chose “journey” as the theme for “Saruganseki Hitchhikes across Eurasia.” Through the camera, we shared the numerous difficulties the contestants experienced and all the many people they met along the way as they traveled toward their goal.
Their journey was unscripted and a real-life story. The obstacles that the performers experienced were overwhelming. As they were placed in extreme situations and their inner spirit was tested, they seemed to forget about the camera and acting, and allowed their human sides to be revealed. This is the essence of the show.
A thought occurred to me: What would happen if we took the concept of “journey” and transferred the setting from the outdoors to a room? This was the beginning of a project revolving around Nasubi, whose sole interaction would be with people who came to visit his room, like deliverymen. His goal would be to earn a million yen by never leaving his room. How? By writing thousands of postcards to apply to sweepstakes. A similar concept was used for Funako.
Of all the episodes you produced, what was the craziest in terms of physically pushing yourselves, your crew or your talent?
Backing performers into a corner to experience harsh situations is a vital part of the project, but segments involving trips stand out the most.
One episode that comes to mind is when one of the performers (Itoh) almost died of dehydration out in the deserts of Africa during the shoot of Panyao’s “Denpa Shonen’s Journey to Africa & Europe.” The cameraman, of course, accompanies the performers to document everything, but does not help or interact with the performers. The performers must complete the trip on their own without assistance from anyone. Panyao was the one who somehow found water to revive Itoh and probably saved his life. There was another incident where the cameraman lost the two guys in Africa for several days. White-knuckle incidents like these kept us on the edge of our seats until they reached their goal, which would be the first time we could let out a sigh of relief.
The project where Nasubi attempts to earn 1 million yen while being locked up naked in a room was based on the theme of “can someone actually earn a living off of sweepstakes?” For the 11 months that Nasubi spent trying to reach this goal, he did not take a single step outside. During this period, he plunged into despair, but because he was naked and had no clothes, he couldn’t even run to the police for help.
Aside from the five minutes that Nasubi was able to interact with a delivery person, his 24 hours were spent writing out postcards by himself in a dead-silent room. Imagine the elation that overcame him during those valuable few minutes when he would feel his only connection to the outside world through talking to the delivery person and checking the contents of the packages he would receive. It was at that moment when he would burst with jubilation and even start dancing to express his happiness. It’s in thrilling moments like these when we’re given a glimpse into the true nature of humans. By the way, he didn’t know the video was being broadcast, although he knew that he was on-camera the entire time. Day by day, he became unconscious of camera.
Any favorite episodes or moments?
It would have to be the moment Nasubi reached his goal. Actually, Nasubi himself didn’t know what the goal was. He was clueless that his situation was being aired on TV and even more clueless that his room had secretly been transported to the stage of an assembly hall, where hundreds of people were waiting to see him and celebrate his accomplishment.
On cue, the roof of his prefab room was removed and the four walls fell down, suddenly revealing a very naked Nasubi in the spotlight on stage. He looked out at the sea of people and in that moment, he revealed a natural, basic human side to the cameras. No matter how many times I’ve watched his expression and reaction, I never get tired of it!
If you could say one thing to your fans in the US what would it be?
Reality shows in the U.S. and Japan differ in their production methods. In the States, you deal with performers who are conscious of appealing to the cameras, whereas in Japan, we take great care in having the performers completely forget that they’re on camera. Here is one proven method: let’s say we install a fixed camera somewhere and aim it at someone. We deliberately shut off the switch while the person is conscious of the camera. This could last for a month but, eventually, as the person gets tired of playing to the camera, we finally start shooting for real. Audiences enjoy this chance to observe the ultimate “bare-all” aspect of people.
I’m working on the Kanpei Earth Marathon project which launched last December. A sixty-year-old actor and comedian, Kanpei Hazama, has just started on a two-and-a-half-year journey around the world on foot and by sail. He reached Los Angeles at the end of February and will be running 50 kilometers a day across the North American continent. We’ll be updating Kanpei’s daily challenges web site so you can share his experiences. Please check it out and cheer him on!