Content Warning: mentions of suicide.
I suspect that I find reality TV so alluring for the same reason that everyone else does. It grants me the ability to project and absorb myself into others peoples’ lives; I can enjoy the sensation of drama without enduring any real-life consequence. The meta-experience is deliciously dissociative, even seductive when the world feels like it’s crashing around my ears.
While I can’t watch more than a few episodes of shows like Love Island or The Bachelor without feeling physically queasy—Terrace House offered a guiltless viewing experience. The show had an ineffable quality of wholesomeness, even virtuousness. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why—people got into fights, sure, but they seemed less explosive. We tend to read Japan as more evolved. For this reason, I permitted myself to gobble up one episode, then another, then another… and so on, until I had devoured the whole season over the course of one hazy afternoon.
As the pandemic’s curve throttled up to new, dizzying heights, I sat in the warm afterglow of my laptop screen, listening to an exchange feed through my earbuds.
“I felt that Terrace House was an exception to other reality TV shows. The castmates pursued career and self-development, and focused on introspection. There was a full range of emotion to be found in banal, everyday interactions.”
“The first thing you do when you wake up is come in here and clean all the dishes. Don’t you think that’s a loving gesture?” Vivi directed this gentle yet unflinching observation to the lovelorn Tupas. Hana sat beside Vivi, nodding sagely.
The three castmates were gathered around the dining room table. Presumably it was the end of the day—they were all dressed in varying forms of pyjamas—although it’s hard to tell time in Terrace House, the Japanese reality TV show which has captured the minds and imaginations of millions across the globe, myself included.
In line with other reality TV, time in Terrace House ceases to take on its natural linear progression. The clocks are instead wound and set by silent producers who sift through hundreds of hours of footage, which are spliced and then strung together into a narrative arc which encourages insatiability.
“So stop lying to yourself,” Vivi said, laughing tenderly. She had artfully tucked her hair behind her ears. Observing her, I touched my own hair. “Stop saying you don’t know how to love.”
Tupas began to cry.
For the first time in weeks I felt a sense of comfort, watching the show, and this scene in particular. I too, sat among friends, counselling and uplifting one another, engaging in the rhythms of life.
It was easy to forget that concurrently, Terrace House’s millions of other viewers were watching the scene as well: at their desks, by their beds, on kitchen sofas, eating dinner, similarly lulled into this manufactured sense of intimacy.
Perhaps they saw the scene as I did: an emotional, heartwarming conversation between friends. Perhaps they saw it differently.
Months earlier I mentioned my love for the show to my friend Yuma who spent her middle and high school years in Japan. She wrinkled her nose. “That fake-ass show?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, defensively.
“You do know that everyone’s just performing for the camera. How do you not see that?”
I wonder the same thing myself.
I felt that Terrace House was an exception to other reality TV shows. Unlike the scheming of other shows’ contestants, Terrace House’s castmates pursued career and self-development, and focused on introspection. There was a full range of emotion to be found in banal, everyday interactions: Vivi had illustrated Tupas’s capacity to love through his diligence in washing dishes—and wasn’t that a beautiful thing?
“I had felt that it was okay to indulge Terrace House but not shows produced in Western countries. I didn’t take stock of my participation in oriental gawking. As an Asian-American woman, I didn’t even consider it a possibility.”
I watched hungrily, as the camera panned alternately over glistening soba, over still water steaming in the wintry light, over the trials and tribulations of young people, coming into themselves in the public eye.
In May of this year, the latest season of Terrace House had aired on Fuji TV, and a scene in which Hana upbraided a fellow castmate for ruining her wrestling costume in the wash was displayed to millions across Japan. An onslaught of brutal and relentless cyberbullying followed. Soon after, Hana Kimura was found dead in her home. It is believed she took her own life.
Her death has set off a national conversation about cyberbullying and the extent to which it runs rampant in Japan. What is lacking from this dialogue is the obvious fact that reality TV allowed this to happen—it took a single, commonplace scuffle between two housemates and let it become everybody’s business. Viewers conveniently forget that reality TV’s bottom line is to make entertainment of and therefore commodify people’s lives.
I should not have been so surprised that the (perceived) benign nature of Terrace House was an illusion; that its cast were just as susceptible as anybody else to the pitfalls of quasi-fame.
I had felt that it was okay to indulge Terrace House but not shows produced in Western countries. Other viewers have felt similarly, having compared Terrace House to a “balm,” a “nature documentary,” even “meditation.” “‘For the Western viewer, one pleasure of Terrace House is to grope towards its idiom.’” At the time I didn’t take stock of my participation in oriental gawking. As an Asian-American woman, I didn’t even consider it a possibility. I figured that my identity, my life experiences (the catcalls, white men stricken with ‘yellow fever’), precluded me from fetishising. And yet, I groped.
“The East is not perceived as the West’s political, cultural, or social equal. Instead it is seen as an untapped resource, a tantalising jewel, ripe for the taking. This worldview is the justification behind countless invasions and wars, not only of land and resources, but of minds.”
I was shocked by the tragedy. I recalled the common refrain: You think you know someone… the saying felt more true than ever before. It is hard to acknowledge one’s complicity in a collective failure, but one damning fact remained: my comfort had come at a high cost.
In his exploration of Orientalism, scholar Edward Said remarked on Western tendencies to depict the East in patronising terms. The East was (and is) portrayed as timeless, a place of wonder and mystery. The East is not perceived as the West’s political, cultural, or social equal. Instead it is seen as an untapped resource, a tantalising jewel, ripe for the taking.
This worldview is pernicious, even and especially when the East is read as purer, or more peaceful. It’s the justification behind countless invasions and wars, not only of land and resources, but of minds.
It’s easy to grieve for the past, a time when we knew less, when the world appeared more wide and open. It’s no coincidence that so much of our current entertainment taps into nostalgia. Yet I remind myself that the oasis is just a mirage. In a moment when we’re challenged to question everything, there’s an opportunity to look both out and in.
I don’t think I’ll be able to watch Terrace House again. I doubt I can say the same for all reality TV. Eventually the voyeuristic itch will return. When I watch, however, I’ll remind myself that reality TV is just as much a fantasy as any other show. Put in front of any audience, a person becomes an actor, and isn’t every actor just playing a version of themselves that they choose to show the world? Perhaps with that knowledge, there’s a way to move forward; reminding ourselves of the distance between us and the screen.
Maz is a writer living and working in Brooklyn. You can find her fiction in Scoundrel Time and Jellyfish Review, and other thoughts in gal-dem magazine and on Twitter @_mazdo.