America Does Ninja Warrior As Good As Japan

About one of the standout summer programs in the US, and a surprise.

Several years ago, when I was still in college, I conceived of a way to adapt Sasuke into a limited series in the US. It would’ve followed the standard format seen in American Idol or America’s Got Talent (both imports themselves) of regional tryouts followed by a final cut-down week to get to the 100 required to tackle the course proper. In other words, I take full responsibility for the current incarnation of American Ninja Warrior, NBC Universal’s summer hit that is every bit as good as the Japanese specials it apes.

ANW has a bit of a history. After G4 gained ratings gold by repackaging Sasuke specials as Ninja Warrior, American Ninja Challenge was born in 2006 to recruit US athletes to compete on Japan’s obstacle course. After 4 iterations, it morphed from a simple special to a full-blown series in 2009. Contestants would be whittled down to 15 and then to a final 10 which would be sent off to Japan for a shot at glory and eventually a $500,000 bounty if they beat the whole thing. For season 4, things changed. ANW stopped being a Sasuke feeder system* and became a fully stand-alone program. Wannabe entrants first had to endure two rounds of regional qualifying, with the top runners from each city plus wildcards head to a version of Sasuke‘s course in Las Vegas for half a million.

*-In November 2011, Monster9, the production company who created Sasuke and other athletics shows like Unbeatable Banzuke and Sportsman No.1, filed for bankruptcy and the rights to the show were acquired by the Tokyo Broadcasting System. I’m not saying this was the reason ANW became fully self-contained, but I’m not saying it wasn’t.

The reasons American Ninja Warrior work for me are the same reasons Wipeout doesn’t. I mean sure, people falling down is fun—otherwise America’s Funniest Home Videos, itself a Japanese import, wouldn’t have been on the air for 25 years—but that’s all Wipeout has. At the end of every episode you felt like someone won not because someone had to win; the rules said so. On ANW, victory is earned the way any victory in sports is earned—by the athletes’ talents and force of will. (You could argue it’s even better than actual sports because there are no adjudicators to ruin it for everyone.) The obstacles created for the show pay dutiful respect to the classic tenets of Sasuke‘s courses: simple builds with little to no automation, yet designed for maximum challenge. It helps that TBS is part of the ANW production team, but the amount of effort that goes into the courses is still very remarkable, and the choice to shoot at night all season has created some spectacular imagery.

Of course any good sport isn’t just about the game, it’s the people who play it.  None amongst the hundreds of participants are there just for show.  They’re all there to reach the top and they’re all in it together.  Even though Ninja Warrior is an individual event, everyone tries lifts to each other up and push each other to reach their full potential.  It’s almost like the fraternity of Jeopardy contestants, but with sports; a bond I wasn’t sure was there with Sasuke.  It also helps that the broadcast team of Matt Iseman, Akbar Gbaja-Biamila (not to be confused with his brother) and Jenn Brown are all on the same page as the athletes.  They provide positive critique and analysis without all the sturm und drang you get from, say, the NFL.  They cheer when the athletes cheer, are sad when the athletes fail, and make all the bad puns you expect from a first division play-by-play team.

Long story short, if I made a list of all the game/reality shows on TV right now, American Ninja Warrior is in my Top 5, and 2nd-best import, ranking just behind The Chase.  Next Monday night (7/6) starts the City Finals, which means whoever survives moves on to the big show and a shot at the half-mil.  It’s a great place to jump in and get hooked.  However, if you’re going to be a hipster and say the original was cooler, you’re in luck.  The 3rd Sasuke Rising and 30th tournament overall, airs this Thursday on Japanese TV, and Otaku Drive Time will spend the morning watching along and providing commentary along the way.  More details will come soon, but you will not want to miss it.

[NOTE: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that City Finals started on June 30.  This has since been corrected.]