What Are Those Japanese Shows Where Celebrities React To Videos?

by Justin Sevakis,

Chris asks:

Every now and then, some tidbit of news will come to us in the form of a Japanese TV show where guests or panelists in a studio or person-on-the-street-style participants are seen reacting to some video clip. The participant will be superimposed in a circle wipe in a corner, and we'll watch as they watch whatever this clip is, whether it's a new anime PV or a musical performance or what have you. Question: what the heck are we watching? Are these segments from some kind of news program or a variety show or what?

You are referring to the mind-numbing world of Japanese celebrity talk shows. They're similar to Western talk shows, except that the celebrities that are on stage for the week don't spend their entire time talking. Instead, they sit and watch pre-produced segments, and react to them on-camera. Their faces are shown in a small inset box in the corner of the screen. The clips can range from "other celebrities doing dumb things" to slightly serious human interest pieces, depending on the talk show. I'm unaware of a name for this specific format, so they're just generally regarded as "talk shows."

The practice of showing a "wipe" (as they're called) of celebrity reactions to video clips is a practice that, according to Japanese pop culture blog Tofugu, originated with an early 80s talk show called Naruhodo! THE WORLD, which was decidedly more of the "celebrities doing dumb things" type of talk show. Originally the reactions were just audio, but eventually producers came up with the wipe effect, and since then the practice has become pervasive across Japanese talk shows.

The inset celebrity reactions (which are usually over-acted for comedic or dramatic effect) are there both to enhance the impact of whatever clip is being shown (similar to a laugh track), and for marketing value, since the TV networks are in a constant battle to show off whoever the celebrity flavor of the month is on whatever talk shows they will appear on. The reactions, of course, are almost never insightful or intelligent -- they're just "scared face during scary clip" or "Ooooh, that looks good" to food clips. The concept at its very core is meant to be as risk-overse as possible: the safety of marketing celebrity appearances, but in a format that allows them to be as unoriginal and non-controversial as possible. Many of the celebrities are idols are models, and don't have much interesting to say anyway.

While the format doesn't have a direct parallel with Western TV programming, the closest we've come is a short-lived 2010 NBC talk show called The Marriage Ref (wherein comedians provided color commentary on clips of a dysfunctional marriage), and of course, thousands of YouTube reaction videos. The Marriage Ref was terrible, and so are most of those YouTube videos, but they're still more interesting than these talk shows, as they both rely on the reacting people to be witty and insightful. Japanese talk shows have no such requirement.

These shows dominate the airwaves, as they're cheap to produce and offer the easy marketing hooks of celebrity guests. They've taken over time slots that were once home to more accessible early-evening anime, like invasive species taking over the nesting spots of cute endangered animals. While the "react to video clips" format has been successful for decades (and is also commonly seen in other Asian countries), but for the last decade we've seen more of the "celebrities eat stuff or go to a resort and say 'oishiii!' a lot" format. People who visit Japan and expect to switch on the TV to see an explosion of dramas, anime and J-pop are usually horribly let down by what they find. Most of the day, it's usually either these talk shows, or close-ups of noodles being served at some famous hot springs resort.

The banality of Japanese TV isn't just a foreigner's perspective -- according to a poll conducted by Asahi Shinbun, 75% of Japanese citizens consider their TV programming to be pretty boring. But cable TV never really took off in Japan, and satellite channels don't offer nearly the variety you can find in the West, so the broadcast networks over there simply don't have to try very hard to be interesting. Which means a new up-and-coming actress holding her hand to her mouth and going "kawaiiii!" to a clip of a well-trained pet is what passes for quality television.

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Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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