The 10 Best Japanese Game Shows of All Time

Different countries seem to specialize in different TV shows. Brits are good at tight, twisty, cozy mysteries. Korea dominates the theater world. And Japan? Well, aside from anime, they also make some of the most over-the-top game shows of all time. Often these competitions involve physical and mental endurance, absurd situations, and unwitting stardom. Here’s our guide to 10 of them that transcend the language barrier.

With one exception, these are not available for regular streaming. Instead, you’ll mostly find them on YouTube, a Shanghai-based service called Bilibili, and even the Internet Archive, among others; we will provide the necessary links below.

1. Dero!

One of the characteristics of game shows in Japan is the punishment of failure, and Missitsu Nazotoki Variety Dasshutsu Game DERO! pushed this concept to the limit. When it premiered in 2009, the most obvious comparison was with the hit Seen movies – contestants were locked in rooms with “death traps” like quicksand, collapsing walls, rising water, etc. They had to compete to solve puzzles and answer questions before the situation became dire and they “died”. Nope, DERO! did not accumulate an actual body count. But even if the traps weren’t exactly deadly, they certainly sent the participants into a hilarious state of panic.

Watch a playlist of episodes on YouTube(Opens in a new window)

2. Sentosha

Sentosha: Battle Wars is one of the most over the top ideas for a game show I’ve ever seen. Mix the gimmickry of American Gladiators with the automotive madness of Top of the line, competitors must drive their vehicles through explosions, over rickety ramps, and through bizarre terrain, all in the name of “hazard-entertainment.” The legal liability here is enough to give an insurance company fits. The participants are not professional pilots either, it is a motley crew of artists, comedians and even professional wrestlers, the Great Muta.

Watch on Amazon Prime Video(Opens in a new window)

3. Za Gaman

One of Japan’s first physical challenge style game shows, Za Gaman wasn’t very popular when it aired in the 80s, but found new life overseas. Based on recreational activity among Japanese college students, the show pits young men against each other in a variety of absolutely insane and inhuman feats, with quitters being weeded out. Of all the shows on this list, this one had the most potential for permanent physical or mental trauma, so it’s hard to find episodes online, but the clips that surfaced are excellent.

4. VS Arashi

If you’re a pop star in Japan, you can’t just sing and look good. No, the life of an “idol” involves an endless series of personal appearances and concerts on television. In the case of boy band Arashi, this included their own competition show where they had to compete against guest teams in a variety of absurd events. Some favorites include the Rolling Coin Tower, where they stack discs on a spinning platform; Kicking Sniper, where competitors launch large rubber balls at moving targets; and Cliff Climb, which is exactly what it sounds like. Goofy, colorful and lively, it’s a charming sight with a devoted cult following.

5. Tokyo Friends Park 2

If there’s one American game show that comes closest to some of them, it’s The price is right with its legion of wacky mini-games. But where this show revolves around trade and capitalism, Tokyo Friends Park 2 emphasizes cooperation. Teams of four compete in a wide variety of challenges, from launching their Velcro-covered bodies off a trampoline to stick at targets on a wall, to skewering takoyaki octopus balls or play a giant game of Whack-A-Mole. It all culminates in a ceremonial air hockey game against a team of comedians in outrageous costumes.

Watch a playlist of episodes on YouTube(Opens in a new window)

6. Thanksgiving of the Stars

Western game shows usually fit nicely into a half-hour time slot, five days a week. But Japan does things a little differently. Star Thanksgiving only airs twice a year, but each episode is over five hours long – a real endurance challenge. On the show, between 150 and 200 celebrities from various backgrounds come together to answer quiz questions and compete in a wide variety of physical challenges until only one remains. What makes this show so epic are the banana tasks they ask contestants to do: climb stairs covered in slippery mud? Sumo? Archery ? It’s all on the table, and you never know what you’re going to get.

7. Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai

One type of programming that has remained strong in Japan while dying out in the United States is the variety show, where hosts introduce artists, do interviews, and generally fill time. Here they are mostly in the late night block and hosted by guys like Jimmy Fallon. But in Japan, tradition dictates that comedy duos do the work, and Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai is one of the most notorious. The competitive element comes into play with the show’s “batsu games”, where the loser of a bet or challenge must suffer a bizarre punishment. This show gets cut on YouTube all the time, and for good reason: the batsu games, which range from shaving bald while skydiving to blowpipes in your butt every time you laugh, are insane.

Watch on Billbili(Opens in a new window)

Recommended by our editors

8. Battle for Money Sentouchuu

Premiere in 2012 on Fuji TV, Sentouchuu battle for money truly embodies the difference between Japanese and American game shows. On our networks, the contestants are few and humanized, seen as real people with stories and lives outside of the show. But when competitors are let loose on Sentouchuu battle for money with nothing but a dodgeball and their wits, it’s chaos on a grand scale. Getting hit by a ball eliminates a player, and if you’re the last one standing before time runs out, you win big bucks.

Watch on the Internet Archive(Opens in a new window)

9. Kinniku Banzuke

In general, most American game shows are challenges for the mind, not the body. Of course there is the strange American ninja warrior Where Double dare for the kids, but that’s about it. In Japan, however, they are much more willing to test the whole person. The Ridiculously Popular Kinniku Banzuke (“Muscle Ranking”) pits pro athletes against everyday Joes and Janes in a wide range of physical challenges, including unicycling through obstacle courses, high-speed push-ups, and more. The show was canceled when two contestants of the “Power Island” challenge were injured while fending off heavy rolling balls.

Watch on YouTube(Opens in a new window)

10. Takeshi Castle

We may end with the Platonic ideal of the Japanese game show. Hosted by actor, director and extremely weird guy Takeshi Kitano, Takeshi Castle premiered in 1986 and was an instant hit. The titular castle was a massive set dominated by Kitano, and in each episode, between 88 and 142 people tried to overcome obstacles to kill the king in his lair. Not literally, of course. The challenges were wacky and inventive, with simulated earthquakes, swinging ropes, and brutally unfair random choices at every turn. You don’t have to speak a word of Japanese to like this show, but it’s been dubbed to American audiences as MXC.

Watch the UK dubbed version on YouTube(Opens in a new window)

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