Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ninja Warrior

My friend Des first brought this show to my attention like two years ago: she told me how she stumbled upon it channel surfing one night and after watching for a bit she woke up her husband and told him "I just found the best show ever." Despite this endorsement, I didn't actually get a chance to really sit down and watch Ninja Warrior until earlier this summer when I found myself in the middle of a weekend marathon on G4 (that channel that's sort of like Spike TV, but maybe it's aimed at teenage boys who play video games). Anyway, all it took was a few episodes for me to get hooked.

So what is Ninja Warrior (or "Nin JAH Warrior" as G4 invites you to pronounce it)? It's basically a televised athletics competition where participants race through this obstacle course-on-steroids. Each season (I think every year there's a competition in the spring and fall), 100 competitors tackle the Ninja Warrior course -- out of whom perhaps as many as 15 advance past stage one. Besides the Ninja Warrior All Stars, who are returning veterans, some of the most successful competitors are gymnasts, firefighters, rock climbers, track athletes, Olympians and former Olympians. Moreover, there's always an assortment of joke competitors, including Japanese TV clowns, the model (like model airplane) enthusiast who races in a crash helmet, and my personal favorite Mr. Octopus, who no one expects to make it very far. I think it was last season when there was this one TV comedian who raced the course dressed as Obama while the crowd of spectators all shouted "Yes we can!" -- that was nuts.

Despite this injection of levity early on in the competition, Ninja Warrior is no joke. The obstacle course requires speed, balance, agility and strength, and -- like I said -- on a good day maybe 15 out of 100 competitors make it on to stage 2 (sometimes the number is much less). The next two stages are even more difficult, and the select few who make their way through them get a chance to try and "climb to the top of Mount Midoriyama" and achieve "Total Victory." Thus far, in the 22 Ninja Warrior competitions, only two guys have ever gone all the way. The 1st (way back in Season 4) was this crab diver from Hokkaido named Kazuhiko Akiyama who has freaky-looking eyebrows and who has since declined as a contestant apparently due to failing eyesight. More recently, in Season 17, a fishing boat captain named Makoto Nagano made it.

It's unclear whether you get some sort of cash prize for achieving Total Victory, in addition to bragging rights and title of "Nin JAH Warrior," but since only two people have ever done it it's basically a moot point. At the very least those who go far are often recruited to join the Ninja Warrior All Stars which seems to be a paying gig. Anyway, despite the questionable monetary rewards, there are people who take the competition very seriously -- even quitting their jobs to focus on training and constructing facsimiles of the course's obstacles to practice on.

The Course

There's basically two ways for competitors to get eliminated on Ninja Warrior: you either slip up and fall into the muddy water below (actually, if any part of you touches the water you're out of the competition), or you can run out of time (all of the stages except Stage 3 are timed).

The people who design the course are pretty much evil, and they are always changing things around to make it even harder. After Nagano's win in Season 17 they completely overhauled the course and since then a lot of the veterans who advanced pretty far in the past have been unable to match those performances. It seems that no one ever questions whether they might have made things too difficult. In Season 19, for example, only two competitors cleared Stage 1 and both of them fell early in Stage 2. You might think this would lead the producers to make the early parts of the course a tiny bit easier (if only to keep things interesting for the audience), but, on the contrary, they didn't change much of anything for Season 20. I guess if no one gets half way through the course that's fine, and they'll just need to step it up next time.

Favorite Stage 1 obstacles include the Log Grip (grab onto the log and hold on for dear life as it makes its ways down a shaky track), the Great Wall (get a running start, jump for the top of the curved wall, and then try and pull yourself up), and the Jumping Spider (bounce as high as you can off a trampoline and then IN MID AIR brace yourself between two walls "spiderman style"). Stage 2 features the incredibly difficult Salmon Ladder (it's like the pull-up bar from hell), and then Stage 3 is all about hanging from your arms for a really long time (not to mention the next to impossible leap you have to make on the Cliff Hanger). The rarely glimpsed Stage 4 seems to be all about beating the clock as you rope climb up this like 30 foot tower.

Favorite Competitors

Besides Nagano, some of the other front running competitors are village hall worker and former track star Bunpei Shiratori (I want to say he's really tall and skinny but apparently he's only 5'9"), fire rescue worker Toshiro Takeda, and gas station manager Shingo Yamamoto (I think it's cute how he wears his uniform and ball cap when he's competing). Then there's Levi Meeuwenberg this young American free runner who won G4's American Ninja warrior contest and came out of nowhere to get further than anyone in Season 20. There are other international competitors as well like Taiwanese rock climber Lee Enchi who got to Stage 3 in the last competition (#22). Women also compete in Sasuke, the main competition, in addition to the all-ladies Kunoichi, but I think only one or two female competitors have ever completed Stage 1.

The Allure of Ninja Warrior

So not only is Ninja Warrior fun to watch, but the obstacle course also looks like a lot of fun (although I'm sure in reality it would be more like scary and difficult). At the height of my obsession I was all "someday I will be a competitor on ninja warrior!" If that somehow happened, my aim would basically just be to finish Stage 1 (you've got to be joking with that salmon ladder shit). Logistics aside, I'd obviously have to get in super good shape to have a chance -- I somehow don't see myself building my own obstacles to practice on though. I hoped that maybe I could use my dream (or passing interest, whatever) to be on ninja warrior in order to get my lazy arse to the gym more regularly, but so far results have been mixed.

I imagine the hardest parts for me would be the jumping spider and the wall climb (maybe I would be at a height disadvantage?). Plus, did I somehow learn how to climb a rope since high school gym class? Even if you're a true ninja warrior you can still slip up and fall at any point in the course, and then you don't get another chance for six months. Also, at some point, I wised up to the fact that although it all looks like fun and games on TV I'm sure some of the obstacles that involve heights are daunting and overcoming the fear probably plays a big factor. Maybe jumping off that tree thing in Jamaica was a good start.

Alright, chances are I will never get the opportunity to compete on "Mount Midoriyama" (i.e. the Ninja Warrior course), but at the very least I think I'll have to have some kind of viewing party when Season 23 airs.

Images: Mr Octopus, Log Grip, Spider Jump and Salmon Ladder screen captures all found on funnystrange.com. Videos showing Levi Meeuwenberg and Lee Enchi competing in Sasuke 22 posted on youtube by BLM.

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