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‘Terrace House’ Is a Harrowing, Emotional Adventure That Makes You Rethink Reality Television

The Japanese franchise is easily misunderstood by American audiences.  It’s not a balm for battle-scarred viewers in need of a rest from the emotional crucible of ‘Desperate Housewives’ and its ilk. In fact, there is nothing mundane, or safe, about it.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

What if I told you that there was, right now, on American television, a series vaster in its narrative breadth than Game of Thrones, more acute in its characterization than Mad Men, funnier and more morally searching than The Good Place, self-aware to a more gothic depth than Keeping Up With the Kardashians, scarier than American Horror Story, and almost as labyrinthine a diagram of the society it depicts as The Wire, and that even though this series was easily viewable by anyone in the U.S. for no more than the cost of a $12.99 HD monthly subscription to Netflix, absolutely no one in America was watching it?

Now what if I told you that people were watching this show—that you might even have watched it yourself—but that, for a whole slew of reasons almost as complex and fascinating to consider as the show itself, the real nature of the series was eluding almost everyone, to the point that it might as well have been ignored? What if I said we were watching but not really seeing it?

Are you the type of person who’d be intrigued by a description like that? Or are you a more suspicious type—someone who’d say, “I don’t buy it, this sounds like an internet writer exaggerating a take, time to jump over to YouTube and watch some teens unboxing a candelabra”?

Friends, we are about to find out. I am here to prove to you, using nothing but words and sentences, that Terrace House, the Japanese reality-show franchise whose fourth and latest installment concluded on American Netflix this week, is one of the great TV shows of our sad, young millennium. Furthermore, I am going to convince you that for several slippery and mutually reinforcing reasons, including cultural differences, the foibles of international music licensing, divergent expectations vis-à-vis the function of reality TV, and good old-fashioned laziness, the depth and profundity of the show have been missed by almost every American viewer outside a handful of hardcore fans on Reddit—whose outlaw heroism in spreading the word with respect to said depth and profundity hopefully will emerge as one of the secondary takeaways of this piece.

The primary takeaway, I hope, will be that Terrace House is not—is, in fact, the opposite of—“boring.” “Boring” being the most telling word American critics use to describe the show. Boring in a good way, many of them rush to add. Comfortingly boring. But boring. The format of Terrace House is so apparently simple, and the tone of the series so deceptively calm, that if you’re used to the high-concept setups and nonstop emotional fireworks of Bravo-style shows, it’s easy to see Terrace House as a more innocent, toned-down version of American reality TV. The key terms that tend to show up in American writing on Terrace House are words like slow, natural, real, low-stakes, mundane, sweet, soothing, and boring. The implication of a lot of this writing is that Japanese culture is much nicer than American culture, and that, as a result of the ambient contextual niceness from which TH springs, the series arrives inevitably desaturated of the relentless high-octane drama that makes American reality shows so addictive. It’s slower, per the implication. Gentler. Closer to real, everyday life. And this (again, per implication) makes it a balm for battle-scarred Americans in need of a rest from the emotional crucible of Desperate Housewives and its ilk.

In fact, Terrace House is none of these things. It’s every bit as artificial, and every bit as harrowing, as its American counterparts; on both counts, it might be more so. But you can’t begin to perceive the real sources of its conflict and drama until you step outside some of your conditioned, Bravo-ish assumptions about what reality TV is for and how to watch it. In other words, all you have to do to appreciate Terrace House as an American in 2019 is fundamentally re-examine your basic idea of the self.

Terrace House is a show about six young people who live in a house while a camera documents their lives. TH has one super-ingenious twist—more on that later—but if you’ve seen The Real World or any shows from its Old Testament–level reality show lineage, you know the terrain. You can imagine the lazy breakfast scenes, the heart-to-hearts in shared bedrooms, the zoom-ins on dead flowers, the incongruously obtrusive product placement (one of the minor sub-dramas accompanying each new Terrace House production is which automaker will provide the cars issued to the cast), the meetings convened to address the behavior of one problem housemate, the sapphire pools floated in, the beers tearfully drunk, the guitars strummed by campfires, etc., etc., etc.

All the hallmarks of the genre are present and correct, though sometimes they appear in curiously transfigured form. For instance, Terrace House is a dating show, though it never announces itself as such. Here we encounter the first indication that the show might not be as “natural” or “real” as we are otherwise encouraged to believe. TH presents itself as an unfiltered look at the lives of the three men and three women who live in the house. They continue to go to school, work at their regular jobs, have lunch with their non-TH friends, and so forth. But these sneaky little contrivances have a way of popping up. Every time a new house member is introduced—housemates come and go throughout each production—their first or second scene will always involve one of their new roommates asking them about their romantic type, questions to which they will often have weirdly detailed, specific, and at-the-ready answers. “Looks don’t matter so much to me … I like someone who is athletic, who has a single driving passion, and who loves to drink,” they’ll say, as the camera happens to cut to the goofy-looking Olympian-in-training housemate who is right then helping himself or herself to another shot of vodka.

Over the new housemate’s first few episodes, cast members of the same gender will invariably find quiet moments to ask what the newcomer thinks of the members of the opposite gender. Within a short while, the new housemate will ask out or be asked out by someone else in the house, and from that point forward New Housemate’s on-screen arc will be devoted almost entirely to the question of whether they can fall in love while living at Terrace House—and more than that, whether they can agree to start a relationship. The indisputable emotional summits of each season are always the moments when one housemate “confesses their feelings” to another housemate. (“Confessing feelings” or “telling how you feel” is how TH’s translation team renders kokuhaku, the Japanese act of formally asking to go steady.) When courtships fizzle before this point, cast members tend to announce that they’ve achieved all their goals for coming on Terrace House and that they’ve decided joyfully and of their own volition to leave the show, declarations which tend to be made suspiciously right at the instant when all their romantic arcs and subplots have wrapped up.

I should add, in the interest of fairness, that there are all sorts of exceptions to this basic rule. The Terrace House franchise comprises more than 200 episodes and a feature film, and some of the most memorable cast members have been the ones who stuck around after being jilted or who never found love at all. Seina Shimabukuro, often regarded as the show’s greatest-ever cast member, generated what might be TH’s most legendary run of episodes after her would-be boyfriend, a surfer called Makun, rejected her, leading to a whole rock-bottom–redemption arc whose dramatic perfection and spotlighting of staggeringly cool emo bangs have to be seen to be believed. Tecchan, the aspiring actor who starred with Seina in the first TH series, Boys x Girls Next Door, appeared in all 98 episodes of that production despite never advancing romantically beyond one disastrous, this-parachute-is-really-a-knapsack attempt to hold hands with a J-pop idol. Still, the basic rule applies in the majority of cases.

Anyway, the point is that Terrace House’s seeming straightforwardness is complicated, at the very outset, by a layer of unacknowledged artifice. Well, so what, you might say. All reality TV is based on unacknowledged artifice. The ways in which the genre defines and constructs “reality” make for one of the hoariest topics in cultural criticism, and have probably felt a little shopworn as discussion objects since The Real World first aired. But the artifice I’m talking about with Terrace House isn’t something abstract or conceptual. It’s not “they’re pretending they can’t see the cameras!” (In fact, TH is fascinatingly open about how being on TV affects the cast. You see them watching episodes together. You see them fretting about how they’re talked about on Twitter. During one head-spinning sequence on Opening New Doors, one housemate accuses another of asking her out only because he wants more screen time.)

No; the artifice I’m talking about comes from the fact that Terrace House is slightly but critically dishonest about what kind of show it is. What it says it’s doing (laissez-faireishly following what happens when three men and three women live together) and what it’s actually doing (setting up contrived romantic narratives of ambiguous emotional veracity and degree of producer-puppeteering) aren’t quite the same thing. And that’s fascinating because after all, nothing is stopping TH from openly declaring that it’s a dating show and formatting itself as such. What’s going on when a reality TV series hides something so basic about itself?

I didn’t start to understand what Terrace House was really about until I’d watched maybe 100 episodes. That was the point at which I exhausted the TH supply on American Netflix and had to turn to pirated international broadcasts to satisfy my serious jones for the show. (Netflix has three of the four extant Terrace House series, but not the first, Boys x Girls Next Door, which is the best and by far the longest; U.S. Netflix also gets new episodes of the current series months after they originally air in Japan.) Fortunately, TH boasts an active and passionate community of anglophone fans that congregate around r/terracehouse on Reddit. This group is truly excellent and helpful when it comes to tracking down abstruse cultural references and transmitting TH news and gossip from Tokyo. It can also, if you tap the left side of your nose when you say the code word, point you to even more obscure and culty enclaves of online TH-ophiles where people do stuff like “form teams of translators to make amateur subtitles for all eight-dozen episodes of Boys x Girls Next Door, which were never released with English translations.” Which is probably technically illegal and maybe morally iffy if you’re a stickler for intellectual property rights, but which I am inclined to view more as an act of samizdat resistance against a global legal regime that would deprive you of access to cultural treasures (i.e., Terrace House) because it hasn’t gotten around to doing the paperwork.

The first thing I noticed when I fired up my first Japanese-TV broadcast of Terrace House was that it felt like a completely different show. The scenes were the same, editing was the same, the dialogue was the same, the setting was the same, and the cast members were the same; what was different was the music. That might sound like a small thing. If it does, consider please how high up in a TV show’s command-and-control chain music sits, how much power it has to shape your interpretation of a scene. The flattering lie TV sells you (one of many) is that the music is there to respond to and intensify what you’re already feeling about the action. That’s an illusion. In fact, the music tells you what to feel. A person staring at the horizon will read differently if you take out the ominous, swelling strings and sub in “All Star” by Smash Mouth. Something like that change was what I found in Japanese Terrace House.

The version of TH that airs in the United States tends to bundle its action with upbeat, mellow pop-rock by lesser-known acts; in the Japanese version, those tracks are replaced by global megahits with all the emotions ratcheted way, way up. Presumably, this began as a rights issue—Netflix wasn’t willing to forklift several bank vaults into Radiohead’s backyard to license its music for U.S. audiences—but it morphed into an aesthetic choice. Terrace House was transformed from a sexy, dramatic, borderline soap-operatic show about Young People and Big Feelings into a smaller, sweeter series about some innocent kids navigating the foibles of everyday life.

Need an example? Compare the opening credits of Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City in the familiar American version, where the theme music is “Slow Down” by Lights Follow, with the Japanese opening credits to Opening New Doors, where the theme music is “…Ready for It?” by Taylor Swift.

The first credits sequence seems to promise an hour of emotional recuperation (“We’re caught up in the climb, love was far behind, someone’s gotta stop this madness”) and relearning to appreciate the little things (“so slow down, we need to slow down”). The second seems to promise an hour of decadent spectacle (“baby, let the games begin”) and provocative romantic entanglement (“touch me and you’ll never be alone”). It’s not just the lyrics, either—the whole tone is completely different.

And that’s more or less what each version of the series delivers. If you associate Terrace House with niceness and obscure bands jangle-poppily reminding you to smell the roses, it can be jarring the first time you turn on the Japanese version and hear Radiohead’s “No Surprises” while a house member’s face crumples in despair—a despair that’s suddenly not mild and safely contained in a reassuring pop-punk life lesson; that’s suddenly just, like, despair. In the Japanese version, the opening theme of Boys x Girls Next Door is Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” a song the show also adapted into a slow, crushingly sentimental piano instrumental to play during sad moments, and it can be really jarring the first time you hear it tinkling gloomily away while a house member looks up tearfully at the nighttime Tokyo sky. It’s jarring because you realize your vision of the show has been precisely backward. In its original incarnation, Terrace House didn’t set out to enable you to see mundane experience as an escape from the madness of other reality TV. It set out to reshape mundane experience along the contours of Japanese youth genres like the “trendy” drama (a genre which is alluded to approximately seven billion times during Seina’s unforgettable run on Boys x Girls Next Door). It set out to explore the soap-operatic dimensions of everyday life.

In other words, the music is a clue that the emotions Terrace House means to evoke with its seemingly placid scenes are not small-scale or “heartwarming,” as The New York Times calls them. They’re powerful. At times, they’re borderline melodramatic. The cast members don’t spend a lot of time screaming or striking poses, but what’s under the surface is not quite the serene blank American critics have detected. There’s something Terrace House is not quite talking about, and whatever that thing is, it’s not mundane or safe.

The super-ingenious twist I mentioned earlier is that each episode of Terrace House has a whole second cast, and the only thing this other cast does is watch and discuss the scenes involving the first cast, i.e., the episode of Terrace House that you are, yourself, also watching. This commentary panel (first introduced in the 27th episode of the first series) is made up of a mostly stable roster of Japanese tarento, comedians and models and musicians who maybe aren’t globally famous but who are well-known to Japanese TV audiences for their non-TH careers.

If you’re anything like I was when I first heard about this concept, you’re imagining what the American version of it would look like, and you’re probably picturing a real D-list nightmare, all unfunny jokes, and grisly Hollywood Squares–ish has-beens and comedy grifters promoting their own products. I’m happy to report, though, that the commentary panel in TH is a genuine delight, relaxed and funny and full of real insight into the show. They have chemistry to die for, and since five of the six panelists stay the same from year to year (there’s a rotating slot that always seems to go to a young, clean-cut male musician or actor; anglophone Terrace House fans call whoever is filling this slot the Boy Prince), you end up forming stronger bonds with them than you do with the actual house members. Which adds a fun new level of, like, emotional metatextuality: You’re supposedly tuning in to watch the narrative starring the main cast, but after a while, you’re really tuning in to watch the segments in between, when the secondary cast comes in to talk about the narrative starring the main cast. It’s like watching sports in order to hear what Joe Buck thinks. I know how that sounds—but in this case, it makes sense.

The great thing about the commentary panelists, other than their just being endlessly witty and delightful in all sorts of screenshotable ways, is that they come across as genuinely interested in the house members as human beings. I don’t mean by this that they’re always sympathetic to the house members; sometimes they are, but they can also be pretty judgmental. I mean they’re interested in how their minds work. What makes them tick. There’s a kind of novelistic curiosity about subtleties of motive and personality that sets the TH commentary panel apart from just about anything I’ve ever seen on American TV. They take questions like “what was he thinking when he said that?” and spin them out into long, incisive (but again, very funny and entertaining) theories. They’ll do extended riffs on hypotheticals they invent on the spot—What if he said this to her? What if she said this back?—and act out whole imaginary scenes based on these premises. The two oldest commentators, the comedian Yoshimi Tokui and the singer-actress You, are also obsessed with personality types. He’s the type who loves to yell inside a library. They’ll compress whole taxonomies of character into a single image: “She’s the type of person,” Tokui said once, “who’d own a chameleon.”

And this is fascinating because the scenarios the commentators have to discuss often do have some of the complexity and truth-receding-into-the-distance quality of good fiction. Consider the infamous Meat Incident, as it’s called online, from the second Terrace House series, Boys & Girls in the City, which originally aired from 2015 to 2016. One of the house members, Uchi, had been given a gift of some high-quality steaks by a client at his hair salon. He left the steaks in the freezer. One night, when Uchi was at work, and the house was low on groceries, Uchi’s girlfriend, Minori, decided to cook the steaks. She invited everyone else who was home to have some. Minori was possibly a little annoyed with Uchi, who’d been nagging her about not working hard enough in her modeling career (Uchi was a big believer in hard work), but she didn’t present this as an act of payback or anything like that—it was just sort of, oh hey, we can eat these steaks, which didn’t seem like a huge deal in the moment.

Then Uchi came home and saw that the steaks were missing. He was crushed. Apparently, the steaks were important to him because he’s the type who cares passionately about doing well in his job. For his client to give him this sign of appreciation, after so many months of giving his all at the salon, meant a lot to him. But even here, Uchi didn’t make a huge scene or play up his hurt for the camera. He let people know he was upset, but then quickly retreated to the guys’ bedroom, where he got into bed and wept softly. When the show cut to the commentators, they mostly thought Uchi was overreacting, but then they were also trying to lighten the rapidly darkening mood and keep the episode from collapsing into the overall mood-annihilating bummer it was threatening to become.

Compare this sequence to what I am guessing would have happened under similar circumstances in an American reality show, where the two overriding concerns of the production would have been, first, to clarify the conflict (who felt what, and why) and, second, to amplify the conflict as much as possible. Maybe the Meat Incident seems like a giant nothing if your standard for conflict in reality TV is enraged Americans savagely explaining why everyone else at the custom-motorcycle shop is a corrupt hypocrite or whatever. But when you view it in light of Terrace House’s various structures of evasion and self-examination, you start to see what I meant, before, when I said the show was harrowing. The questions Terrace House is grappling with are not any less dark than those its American equivalents are grappling with; they’re just expressed differently. I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine personally being in a full-on Bravo-level reality-TV smackdown. I find them fun to watch sometimes, they get my pulse rate up, but I know that in my actual life I would leave the room a long time before I found myself shrieking “HELL TO THE N-O” and kicking over trash cans and generally making like a reality-TV star in the midst of a self-justifying tantrum. But I can easily imagine myself falling into the casual emotional quicksand of hurting a loved one’s feelings without wholly knowing whether I’d done it on purpose, apologizing without feeling I was entirely in the wrong, half-consciously confronting the fact that it’s always the people we care about who exhibit the most offhand cruelty toward us, etc. The first kind of conflict feels like reality-TV drama. Conflict like the Meat Incident makes me feel like all my cells are crying out in horror, and also like that is life.

What I’m saying here is that Terrace House is not, or not primarily, a show about action; it’s a show about the interpretation of action. It’s a show about the infinitely elusive mystery of human character—how we read it, how we judge it, how we blame it, forgive it, speculate about it, change ourselves to accommodate it; how we situate ourselves inside the necessary fact of our being surrounded by other people. If the basic unit of drama on American reality TV is self-assertion, the basic unit of drama on Terrace House is self-conformation, not in the sense of making oneself like other people but in the sense of adapting oneself to live among them. I have no idea if any of this is intentional on the part of the creators, but where the artificiality of American reality TV tends to work toward enabling the clarify—>amplify—>fireworks dynamic, the artificiality of Terrace House works to create a kind of laboratory in which the possibilities of that kind of adaptation can be tested and discussed. What’s the highest possibility of self-conformation, after all? It’s knowing and being known by another human being, accepting and being accepted by them. It’s love.

I find here that I have written several thousand words about Terrace House, and I haven’t touched on half the stuff I wanted to talk about: Taka’s mustache, Babachan’s Ohio State sweatshirt, Shion and Tsubasa, the amazing and to my mind never properly explained implosion of the second half of Aloha State, the show’s vast milieu of Japanese surf shops and garden stores and kickboxing gyms and magazine shoots and display spaces rented by 26-year-olds who need some time to work on their swimwear brands. I haven’t mentioned Nacchan, or Han-san, or the time Nacchan made cheeseburgers for Han-san, or … most of what makes TH so great. It’s a huge show, and once you start watching it, it’s easy to lose yourself. But then, that’s one of the things that makes Terrace House beautiful. It’s a show that puts you in touch with the terrible risks and incalculable rewards of living with other people. Losing yourself is part of the point.

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