Taiwan enjoys all things Japanese, a holdover from when the island was a Japanese possession. For example, several Japanese stations are broadcast over the cable system here (subtitled in Chinese).
This situation allowed me to see a dangerous, even subversive, game show; one that would never be run in the United States. And if you’re a regular internet denizen, you know how different Japanese shows can be.
The show is Happy Family Plan, co-hosted by a famous singer from times past; a very tall woman whose name I can never catch.
The premise is simple. Each episode begins with a visit to a family, who gives the show’s roving reporter a dream list of items they’d like to have. One not-too-well-off family in Okinawa wanted an air conditioner (it is damn hot and humid there in the summer). The total cost of goods is in the neighborhood of three million yen.
The family is introduced. Usually two to four kids, a wife, and almost always a grandma or grandpa or both. Plus the father, of course. Cuteness all around as the family tells stories of old Dad.
Then the challenge is introduced. It’s usually a circus-type skill. Do you know name of that thing which spins around on a string which is tied to the end of two sticks, the spinner being made of a rubber ball cut in half and glued together in the middle to a post? Neither do I; but you’ve seen one. The rubber spins, via jerking the strings, to preserve angular momentum, which stabilizes it. Flip the string, and the ball jumps to the air, giving you time to twist the stick and string into funny patterns, just in time to catch the ball before it hits the ground.
Tonight’s challenge was pool, sort of. A circular rack with sloping walls was placed in the center of the table. The rack had seven holes, arranged in a circle. The idea was to hit seven balls so that they rest in the holes of the rack. Not too difficult. But then you had to hit three more balls that must ride up sides of the seven, so that the three rested on top of the seven (which, of course, could not be displaced). And after that, one last ball had to be hit so that it rolled atop all the others, forming a pyramid. Difficult!
A pro demonstrates the skill and naturally makes it look as easy as spilling a cup coffee (which I have done no less than three times since I arrived in country).
Sometimes a memory demonstration is used instead of a physical stunt. For example, in one episode, pictures of nearly two hundred different breeds of dogs had to be memorized.
The father has a week to practice, after which he and the entire family are trucked to the studio where Dad is allowed one chance—one chance!—to perform the stunt. Without error. If he does, then the family goes shopping. If he doesn’t, then the family goes home.
Today’s family was built of three kids, a wife, and a (paternal) grandma. Everybody teased Dad for his fastidiousness. He doesn’t allow anybody to wear shoes in the car, for example. And he insisted on blow drying, then slicking back his hair when he practiced the pool shots, all while wearing a three-piece suit.
Dad’s initial practice attempts were fruitless, but then the grandma stepped up and placed the second level of the pool-ball pyramid correctly, first time. The father couldn’t master it, until one of his sons figured that the ball must be aimed off center and given some top spin.
That is a common occurrence, the whole family bands together and practices with Dad. The reason the show would never work in the States is obvious by now.
Finally, the big day arrives. The father enters The Path of Destiny!
Dad started well tonight (good chalking), but there was a tense moment when one ball nearly slid out of its slot. The eldest son’s face was anything but calm. Everybody offered support, while the shows hosts commented on how unreal Dad’s hair appeared.
Down to the last ball! Which Dad hit too sharply: it knocked off two balls from the second level. Everybody took the defeat well. They always take it well. I’ve seen the show dozens of times and I’ve only seen one physical skill pass muster: every other failed, usually almost instantly.
The show was (is?) immensely popular in Japan. A feature film was even made using the show as a setting.
I haven’t been able to locate any episodes on line, but I haven’t done an exhaustive search in Japanese. (Can Ari help us out?) Maybe it’s just as well, because the show is addictive. Once one begins, you can’t help but watch to the end to discover whether Dad makes it.