First came Big Brother and Survivor, shows that introduced American audiences to reality television's pungent blend of narcissistic participants, base audience urges, and network executives' bad faith. Then came the bachelors, bachelorettes, big fat obnoxious fiances, and that reddish, fuzzy thing that makes its home on Donald Trump's head. Finally, last summer brought the launch of Spike TV, an entire network devoted to reality programming and other low-concept fare—shows like Joe Schmo 2, Trucks! and Pamela Anderson's Stripperella. Billing itself as "the first network for men," Spike TV appears to be aimed at an audience that lacks the physical energy required to turn the pages of Maxim. But among the MacGyver reruns and commercials for herbal testosterone enhancers resides something oddly artistic and genuinely resonant, an obstacle course reality show titled Most Extreme Elimination Challenge— MXC to its fans (Wednesday through Friday at 11:30 p.m. ET/PT and Fri at 9 p.m. ET/PT). If Spike TV has anything to communicate beyond beer and boobs, it may be found amid MXC's Downhill Giant Rice Bowl Slalom and its Eat Shiitake Challenge.
MXC's main footage is taken from the Japanese reality show Takeshi's Castle, which was a runaway hit from 1985 to 1990 on Tokyo's NHK network. The show was hosted by "Count" Takeshi Kitano and featured ordinary Japanese citizens navigating a bizarre series of difficult physical contests while attempting to win a series of prizes. Takeshi's Castle was licensed by Spike TV, renamed Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, and given an occasionally amusing dubbed English narration, performed by two comedians drafted from L.A.'s Groundlings comedy troupe. During the show's initial contests, players are eliminated until an "army" of 100 survivors remains. The survivors, led by a character named General Lee, then attempt a takeover of the eponymous castle. The contests preparing for the siege of the castle are humiliating and painful, and many have more than a tinge of the Freudian about them. In the show's Mushroom Trip, for instance, contestants must hang on to a giant spinning mushroom to reach a platform on the other side of an oozy mud pit. Most are hurled into the mud, where Count Takeshi and his nemesis General Lee, dressed in massive shoulder pads decorated by gold-braid epaulets, rush to trip and wrestle the struggling fallen.
Like its less-competitive cousin, MTV's late, lamented Jackass, MXC's humor often relies on frontal assaults to the groin. Each episode has a segment called Most Painful Elimination, which consists of slow motion clips featuring Japanese men getting it where it hurts. The cause of this particular injury is usually the Skipping Stones challenge, where contestants run at top speed onto stones to reach the other side of a pond. Some of the stones are fakes that sink when stepped on, making for excruciating falls.
Through it all, Count Takeshi acts as a sort of Virgil, guiding his contestants through his land of torture and humiliation. In his tacky parody of a military uniform, he stands by as common Japanese citizens, equipped only with ill-fitting helmets, worn kneepads, and complete guilelessness, enact strange rituals of machismo and masochism. Indeed, among the stupid pratfalls, big swinging balls that knock contestants flat, and splattering mud traps, MXC's attractive count is never less than imperial, remaining utterly dignified as he unflinchingly surveys the contestants' genuine screams and grimaces of pain.
While MXC makes for riveting viewing even without any biographical context, it's interesting to note that the count is also Takeshi Kitano, an artistically revered film director critics have compared to Scorsese and Ozu. Kitano first gained fame in the 1970s as comic "Beat" Takeshi. A master of bawdy, scatological humor, Kitano's Beat persona once startled his audience by describing a romantic encounter with a turd. Kitano was forced into the director's seat when the director of a film he was starring in, 1989's Violent Cop, died. After directing a follow-up string of stylish yakuza gangster films, Kitano went on to win the 1997 Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion for Fireworks. Somewhat fittingly, a handful of American viewers may be familiar with Kitano based on his role as a sadistic game show host (also named Kitano) in 2000's superb, ultraviolentJapanese cultural satire Battle Royale. And Miramax is banking that the July 23 release of the Kitano-directed Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman(in which he also plays the title character) will bring him wider renown.
Despite Kitano's global appeal, MXC's pointed parody of militarism and amped-up violence remain uniquely Japanese. The militarism, for one, is reminiscent of the life of one of Japan's most famous literary exports, Yukio Mishima. Mishima's novels are full of masochistic military fantasies and often concerned with reviving Japan's medieval samurai tradition to redeem a nation disgraced by its defeat in World War II. Takeshi's Castle's original airing, in the late '80s, coincided with the bursting of Japan's economic bubble, another severe blow to the nation's cultural pride. Count Takeshi, then, presides over a stage on which the intense shame that, in Japanese culture, is thought to result from failure is not only externalized and ritualized into a game, but perhaps relieved. While America is far too safety-obsessed and litigious to allow its TV producers to inflict the same level of physical damage on contestants, the show's imported mayhem and subsequent emotional release seem particularly well-suited to our own era of high anxiety. This may explain a ratings jump Spike TV execs claim was 340 percent from the first season, which premiered in April 2003, to the third season currently being broadcast.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the films of Takeshi Kitano were first championed in the United States by our own maestro of high/low cultural juxtaposition, Quentin Tarantino. Kitano and Tarantino both fearlessly marshal the violence, scatology, and "bad taste" lurking in their respective cultures and shape it into an aesthetic work that comments on the deficiencies and anxieties peculiar to our times. LikeAndy Warhol, who guest-starred on TheLove Boat, Kitanoand Tarantino (particularly in his turn as American Idol judge) are both auteur and pop artist, rare examples of big-time directors who position themselves not above but within the culture their art engages and describes.
But what, we have to ask after the 10th or so MXC contestant's grimace of pain, is the enticement that would lead anyone to submit to such physical debasement and injury? According to MXC's American publicist, the prizes are decidedly banal offerings like oven mitts and trays of food. We are left, then, with the same uncomfortable impression created by seasons spent watching average citizens debase themselves on American reality TV shows: Humiliation on national television is itself the big prize. MXC's cathartic physical tests obliquely but nonetheless eloquently illustrate that in the game of culture, as in sports, there is no gain without pain. Perhaps Warhol's prediction was only slightly off, and what contemporary Americans really demand is their 15 minutes of shame.