‘American Ninja Warrior’: A tribute to strength and, most of all, failure
By Hank Stuever,
One thing we don’t see enough of on TV is failure, which is curious, because failure seems to be all we talk about.
We’ve failed to reignite the economy, we’ve failed to get jobs (and give them), we’ve failed to pay back student loans and, while we weren’t busy failing ourselves, we’ve failed future generations. We’ve also failed to agree on a central narrative about failure: Is it our fault, or the government’s? Even the word FAIL — rendered in all-caps, courtesy of an online culture that is hopelessly addicted to schadenfreude — has become a universal taunt.
And yet, very little in our society is built around the possibility that there won’t (or can’t) be a winner declared. Failure is anathema to the motivation industry, which is one of our few growth areas. Everything on TV — from reality shows to the presidential campaign to even the coming Summer Olympics — is geared toward someone coming out ahead and achieving first place even if they don’t set a new record or bring the house down. On our junkiest TV shows, “The Bachelorette” is simply not allowed to decide that not one of these men is right for her. “American Idol” doesn’t tell the finalists that they all sang pretty okay, however, nobody sang like a winner this year. There is no question mark (though there ought to be) in “America’s Got Talent.”
So who would watch a television show where the winner could very well be . . . nobody?
This fact alone may be my favorite thing about the gloriously fun and mentally absorbing “American Ninja Warrior,” the U.S. version of a Japanese obstacle-course competition.
Men (and a few women) get as strong as they can, as nimble as they can, concentrate as hard as they can and still fail. On “American Ninja Warrior,” there’s really no such thing as a second chance or second place, not after the qualifying rounds. The show, which has aired all summer on G4 and in prime time on NBC, is a wonderfully brutal wake-up call to a nation nursed on participation trophies.
When the last of 24 remaining men attempts to finish stages 2, 3 and 4 of the infamous Mount Midoriyama obstacle course on Monday night’s finale (airing on NBC), there remains the distinct possibility that none of them will make it all the way. “Almost” can be everything and nothing here, which means the $500,000 prize could go unclaimed. Which also means, as the show has reminded viewers all along, repeatedly, cruelly: “No American has ever conquered Mount Midoriyama . . .”
No American. Since the Japanese began running “Sasuke,” their “ninja warrior” obstacle course competition, in 1997, several Americans have auditioned and competed. One came close to finishing Stage 3, but none have made it to the end. (And, out of thousands of contestants over the years from all over the world, only three competitors — all Japanese — have ever finished all four stages.)
Americans are not accustomed to a total shutout, yet here it is, in the form of a mammoth series of girders, ramps, platforms, cargo nets, ropes and water pits surrounding a steel tower named Mount Midoriyama.
Four years ago, the growing popularity of “Sasuke” sparked the interest of G4, an NBC-owned cable network obsessed with all things geeky and guy. Early versions of the American show ran U.S. contestants through a preliminary course and then flew the best of them to Japan, where they each got a chance to conquer Mount Midoriyama.
Through a series of obstacles, some with sushi-menu-sounding names (“jumping spider” and the “salmon ladder”), as well as those with gym-rat monikers (the “warped wall,” the “spinning bridge,” the “jump hang” and the “devil steps”), the Americans met defeat year after year, but they also grew more resolute. Ninja warrior fitness communities began to emerge across cities and suburbs, obsessed with the event’s ideals of strength and discipline. A lot of would-be ninja warriors are parkour and free-running enthusiasts — human jumping beans whose fitness routines include flipping and leaping off (and between) buildings, outdoor stairwells and trees. Many are former gymnasts and acrobats. Some work as stuntmen in movies and TV. Some are retired military. Some are just the most agile and strongest members of their local CrossFit gang.
After last year’s show, it was clear that the sport had crossed a certain threshold. The time came, says Laura Civiello, G4’s vice president for development, to stage the entire competition in the United States, which included rebuilding Mount Midoriyama to exact specifications on a spot of desert next to a highway between the casino strip and airport in Las Vegas. As it was in Japan, the Mount Midoriyama course is 1,000 feet long. Building it required six acres of truss construction and 13 semi-truck trailers full of fear. Stage 4, the course’s final climb, stands slightly shorter than the Statue of Liberty.
In March, the network built a portable qualifying course for regional tapings in Los Angeles, Dallas and Miami. In previous seasons, as many as 250 contestants attempted the qualifying round; this year, thousands of audition tapes arrived; 750 men and women were granted a chance to compete. Many ended up falling, dropping or otherwise petering out on the course, but 100 of them either completed the qualifying course or performed strongly enough to be invited to the finals in Las Vegas.
“I can tell you, though, in watching the audition reels, our contestants are getting stronger every year,” Civiello says.
This is an important fact to note. In the endless litany of modern failures, a common refrain is the deplorable physical shape we’re in. Television is filled with newscast B-roll of fatties ambling and snacking. The message is always hammered home as you flip the dial: You’re fat, you’re gross, it’s Lobsterfest! Raise your hand if you can do three pull-ups. Or, better yet, raise your hand if you can raise your hand.
I stumbled onto “American Ninja Warrior” in May, on one of those desperate hunts for anything to watch that I hadn’t already seen or grown tired of. At first glance, the show has qualities I often greet with cynicism and even snark: the rock-and-roll lighting schemes, the overly sappy “competitor profiles,” the quasi-religiosity that is then bolstered by narcissism, then, oddly, leveled off with faux humility.
And yet I can’t stop watching. The show is a display of strength — to get through any of the obstacles requires more upper-body strength than I will ever hope to have — but it is also a meditation on who we are right now as a people. The contestants have cobbled together careers with many hyphens and part-time employment. Some sleep in cars or on their parents’ floors. They find inspiration in megachurches and parkour gyms. The show is fond of making them stare into the camera and declare, with 21st-century self-esteem, “I will be America’s first ninja warrior,” whether they really believe it or not.
“Some of them are shy guys for sure,” Civiello says of her ninja warriors. Most of them were living relatively quiet lives as office workers, husbands, boyfriends and fathers and then became fixated on training for the course. “That’s also a beautiful thing about the show — how everyday they are. When I think about it, on reality [programming], we are inundated with characters who are not shy.”
But “American Ninja Warrior,” she says, “is about your ability. Whatever’s going on with the rest of you is fine, but this is about your ability. . . . And it shows the range of today’s modern man. It’s not the stereotype of the guy who is on a reality show, who is hunting for gold or digging for oil.”
The show has been a ratings boon for G4, attracting a viewership dominated by boys and young men, but Civiello notes that it also gets strong ratings with women — and not only because many of the chiseled competitors run the course while shirtless. “It’s interesting to watch these men be heroic. When you think of how young men are portrayed on TV — I’m thinking of Aaron Paul on ‘Breaking Bad’ — you just don’t get to see young men playing heroes very often. So I think that has something to do with the appeal,” she says. “And you can watch [‘American Ninja Warrior’] on a lot of levels. When people fail, it’s entertaining, yes, but there’s also the emotional connection that you develop with the competitors.”
Obstacle-course shows are, of course, not new. Taking a cue from a hokey Japanese game show that mocks “Sasuke’s” dead seriousness, ABC has found prime-time success with “Wipeout,” in which heavily padded and helmeted amateurs get nearly unlimited attempts to make their way through a clowny (admittedly difficult) obstacle course that is more amusement park than athletic pursuit. The whole point of “Wipeout” is comedy — the bigger the splat, the better the laughs.
One dispiriting aspect to “American Ninja Warrior” is watching its female competitors fail so frequently and early on. The show has no solution for that, no Title IX analogue that would adapt the course to emphasize the strengths of a female athlete. To have any women compete in Las Vegas, the network had to extend a few “wild card” invites to a few who had been eliminated in qualifying rounds, and even then, the Mount Midoriyama course made short work of them.
“Even in Japan, aside from the very first episode they made, no woman has completed Stage 1,” Civiello says. But the women who come to the show, she adds, very much want to confront the course as it is, with no favors. “This is a hard course, period. By being on the air, I hope the show actually encourages more women to come out there and try. The women who did compete, they each want to be the woman who can do it. And someone will be.”
Until then, Mount Midoriyama remains a man’s world, and it’s a punishing world at that. It is fraught with symbolism, packed with lessons about the human body. The Americans keep plummeting off it.
But you know what else? It’s fun. “I love to challenge my body in any way, see what’s possible with my body,” says Brent Steffensen, 32, a stuntman from Utah who completed Stage 1 and now carries the hopes of many of the show’s fans into the finale. If he could, Steffensen says, “I would do it all day long.”
American Ninja Warrior
(two hours) season finale airs Monday at 9 p.m. on NBC; with repeats on G4 (check listings).