Wacky Japanese TV goes American
By David Bauder
|Fox's "Banzai," a Japanese game-show spoof, is a new "reality" series that encourages viewers to bet on the outcome of unpredictable stunts. Asian Americans and others may find it controversial.
Fox via Associated Press
Fox's new Sunday night comedy, "Banzai," is unlike anything else on broadcast television. The fast-paced import manages the breathtaking trick of being offensive, stupid and completely hilarious often at the same time.
Narrated by Japanese actors who occasionally show off crude kung-fu moves, the series sets up bizarre contests for viewers to bet on at home, if they're not choking back laughter or disbelief.
There's a game of chicken between two elderly ladies steaming full-speed toward each other in wheelchairs: Which one will veer off first? A priest, a rabbi and underworked actor Lou Ferrigno face off in a stationary bike race. Then there's the soccer contest between a one-legged kicker and one-armed goalie.
In the very first stunt a week ago, viewers were asked to guess how many helium balloons would need to be attached to a chicken before it becomes airborne.
If you guessed 90, you win.
"You brave little chicken! We will never forget you!" host Burt Kwouk says as "Larry" floats skyward, with REO Speedwagon's "Keep on Loving You" on the backing soundtrack.
Animal-rights activists were appalled. The National Council on Problem Gambling would like to see viewers urged to bet responsibly. And the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans has complained that the series showcases "the most offensive, negative Asian stereotypes."
"The Shuffle of the Sinful Ladies," where viewers had to pick which of three Japanese women in whiteface wore red panties under her kimono, wasn't a big hit, either.
"I didn't think that was particularly funny," said Aki Aleong, a spokesman for the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans.
His group mounted an unsuccessful effort to block the show from airing in cities with big Asian populations.
"'Banzai' is not intended to offend anyone," Fox spokesman Scott Grogin said. "It is a satire, a parody of Japanese game shows. It's a spirited show, very tongue-in-cheek, and shouldn't be viewed as anything more than what it is a very different kind of game show."
Different, in this case, also apparently means taking liberties with the truth.
Since most of the episodes shown on Fox are reruns of material already filmed and aired in Britain, it was surprising to see one contestant in a jousting contest introduced as being from Memphis, and another from Boston.
Wow! Some local rooting interests? Don't bet on it.
"It's a lie," admitted Gary Monaghan, the series' creator. The participants are British actors. Fox's response to anyone who objects to a fib that misleads viewers on the show's origination? Get a life, basically.
Fox sees "Banzai" as a parody of Japanese game shows, although Monaghan said that wasn't what he had in mind.
Three years ago, he was trying to invent a betting show at a time British newspapers were filled with stories about mobsters from Asia fixing soccer matches.
That led him to imagining what kind of TV show these mob figures might create.
"It's kind of a surreal place in that land," Monaghan said. "Anything can exist, anything can be a gamble. So you kind of throw out all boundaries of taste and normal, decent behavior and everything is up for grabs."
He pronounces himself shocked that some Asian Americans are offended. The show has aired for two years in Britain and he hasn't heard any complaints, he said.
The show uses virtually all Asian actors who use their own accents, not exaggerated ones, he said.
"I can understand that Asian Americans want a realistic portrayal of Asian Americans on TV," Monaghan said. "But this isn't set in America. It's not realistic. It's fantasy. I don't quite understand it."
The show's racier in Britain. He's proud of one stunt where a crude euphemism for "breasts" is carved in a field, much like mysterious crop formations seen from the air.
He called it "a ridiculous amount of effort for a really cheap joke."