The Most Bonkers Game Shows In Japanese History

There exists an amazing mutual respect between American and Japanese popular cultures, two worlds that often seem to have a somewhat incomplete, yet lovingly admiring, understanding of each other. The ways in which the two pop culture spheres influence each other are sometimes subtle, sometimes overt — but at the end of the day, both often seem to want to be entertained with the most completely bonkers eye and ear candy our creatives can come up with.

There is one arena in which Japanese culture has always kind of outshone American culture in this respect: the venerable institution of the television game show. While Americans are mostly content to settle in with some "Jeopardy!," "Wheel of Fortune," or "The Price is Right," Japanese game shows tend not to be quite so vanilla. That is to say, they can often be over-the-top in ways that can leave American audiences with their jaws on the floor, shaking their heads in amazement or perhaps envy. Regardless of the reaction, these game shows take the win as some of the most outrageous game shows Japan has ever produced.

Takeshi's Castle

"Takeshi's Castle," which aired between 1986 and 1990 in Japan, was envisioned as a live-action version of the classic video game "Super Mario Bros." — and they pretty much nailed it. In each episode, dozens of contestants would be tasked with completing such challenges as dashing across a series of unstable, floating stones in a pond, dashing up a narrow, rocky chute while dodging enormous (fake) boulders Indiana Jones-style, attempting to stick the landing on a series of risers while swinging over a muddy pit, and hanging onto a bucking bronco that looks suspiciously like Yoshi. The games would conclude with the storming of the titular castle, presided over by commentator Count Takeshi, by contestants trying to hit a series of targets with water guns (and later, light guns). 

Obviously, a massive part of the show's appeal — along with its zany cast of characters, frequent use of popular tunes, and sarcastic commentary — was the tendency of contestants to, well, biff it in spectacular fashion. The series was popular enough to be reworked for overseas audiences as "Most Extreme Elimination Challenge," featuring "Takeshi's Castle" footage edited into new episodes with new hosts and characters — and in 2023, Prime Video rebooted the original series, with a fresh set of ridiculous and amazing challenges.


"Dero!" is a truly diabolical game, if it can be called that; its full title is "Missitsu Nazotoki Variety Dasshutsu Game DERO!" (via The Television), which roughly translates to "Closed Room Mystery Solving Variety Escape Game DERO!" This is a technically accurate, but extremely diplomatic, description. The series of interconnected rooms that contestants are tasked with escaping from contain obstacles and hazards that could politely be described as "freaking terrifying," the puzzles they must solve are of the stupidly difficult variety (especially while under duress), and while the "deaths" they suffer upon failing to complete a room are obviously fake, one can see how participants might be a bit nervous for their safety.

Among the standard trivia questions are puzzles such as scrambled photo identification, hidden object pictures, and word puzzles involving kanji. Among the hazards: a "sand room" where the contestants slowly sink in sand (actually tiny synthetic pellets) as they try to answer questions, a "beam room" where they stand on slowly retracting beams over a "bottomless pit," a "ceiling room" where participants must cooperate using various objects and tools to free themselves while shackled to the ceiling, and a "water room" where ... well, you can probably guess. The show ran for two years between 2009 and 2011, and in 2013, SyFy produced an American version titled "Exit," which somehow lasted for only six episodes.


The quiz format has been a staple of game shows since their inception, and to this day, the vast majority of those shows have rules that boil down to "answer a bunch of tough questions." Depending upon the nature of the questions, most of us probably feel like we could probably do pretty well at this; heck, on a good day, any one of us might be able to walk away with thousands of dollars, or a new hydroplane, or whatever our favorite show happens to be offering. That's part of the appeal of game shows, but consider this: Even if one possesses a formidable degree of knowledge, how much tougher would it be to answer those questions if one had to do it under duress? Like, say, getting slowly mummified?

This is the premise of certain segments of "Tore!," a show in which contestants must complete weird physical challenges while answering questions. In one of these challenges, participants have 60 seconds to answer seven questions while a machine slowly wraps them up in strips of cloth. If they fail to do so, they end up completely wrapped from head to toe, and two halves of a giant sarcophagus descends upon them, slamming shut while a blood-curdling scream sounds. No pressure!

Candy or Not Candy?

In 2022, Netflix viewers were treated (no pun intended) to one of the single weirdest game shows in American history: "Is It Cake?," in which contestants were challenged to determine whether or not a variety of everyday objects being presented to them were, in fact, cake. In a profile on the show upon its release by The Hollywood Reporter, it was explained that the concept was inspired by viral videos of bakers fashioning their cakes into the super-realistic images of things like shoes and rolls of toilet paper — but somehow, the piece failed to mention that our Japanese friends had executed a very similar concept first, and arguably better.

This would be "Candy or Not Candy?," which one might gather features celebrity judges trying to determine whether everyday objects are ... well, you know. The series premiered way back in 2014, and in this version, the participants not only had to try to guess the composition of objects like shoes, plants, and door handles, they had to attempt to take a bite out of them, which is an element conspicuously and shamefully missing from "Is It Cake?" That show has been a huge hit for Netflix, but the streamer could likely have enjoyed an even bigger hit had they promised us the possibility of seeing, say, Florence Pugh, try to chow down on a bowling ball.

The Quest

In America, there are "reality" shows like "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race"; in Japan, the equivalent is "Sekai no Hate Made Itte Q," or roughly translated, "Let's Go to the End of the World," as per the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Known in the Western world by its English title "The Quest," the show is one of the most popular television series in Japan, and its premise is simple: Participants travel to far-flung locales to partake in weird local rituals and festivals, participate in dangerous challenges, and generally insert themselves into bizarre situations (and sometimes physical danger) for the amusement of the viewing audience. Straddling the line between game show and variety series, "The Quest" certainly offers viewers a glimpse into some novel experiences. In one of its most infamous segments (presented above), a participant volunteers to enter a plexiglass cube with a video camera in order to get up close and personal with a hulking grizzly bear, which proceeds to bat the cube around like a toy with the hapless woman inside.

The show has drawn some unwanted attention for one of its segments in particular. In 2018, Japanese weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun ran a piece alleging that at least some of the colorful, exotic, and exceedingly strange street festivals presented in the show were staged for the benefit of the cameras. This prompted an investigation by the series' network, Nippon TV, whose president Yoshio Okubo apologized to viewers in a statement, saying that the series' production "must not drift away from the ethical standards of regular society" (via The Mainichi). Don't try to figure out how that statement squares with the grizzly bear stunt, you'll just get a headache. 


To call AKB48 a "girl group" is technically accurate; they perform pop music, consist solely of girls, and have sold more records than any other group fitting that description in Japanese history. We're not exactly talking about the Japanese equivalent to the Spice Girls or Destiny's Child, though; at over 90 members strong, instead of touring, the group opts to just throw down in their own theater located in Tokyo, often several times per week. The group was conceived by producer Yasushi Akimoto as a group of "idols" that fans could see live, like, all the time, allowing an unprecedented level of accessibility. To that end, the girls of AKB48 also featured in a weekly variety series "AKBingo!" — which, of course, also became a phenomenon and one of the longer-running shows of its type. 

The series featured quiz show and game show-type segments in which the girls were made to perform weird tasks in competition with each other, with the first episode setting the tone nicely with tiny origami-folding, superspeed drawing, and marathon salad eating. But in the series' most infamous segment (shown above), a pair of girls were made to blow into opposite ends of a plastic tube, inside of which was a big old dead cicada, to see who could get the bug into the mouth of the other girl. Frankly, it's a little shocking that Netflix hadn't expanded this segment into an entire series by now. Come on, Netflix, give us "Dead Bug Derby!"

Run for the Money

How's this for a game show premise: A group of contestants are released into a large, contained area. They're given various missions to complete, which they must perform in an allotted amount of time, and they must stay within the area for a full two hours — all while being chased by menacing hunters, whose duty it is to, well, hunt them down and dispatch them from the game. Sounds awesome, right? What's that? This is pretty much the exact premise of the Stephen King novel "The Running Man," and its movie adaptation starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Well, it's also the premise of "Run for the Money," which is pretty much as intense, just less lethal.

The missions, and rewards for completing them or punishments for failing to do so, are often centered on the game area itself in diabolical ways — the failure to vacate one section of the arena within a given time might result in that area being flooded with hunters, while success might result in the game area being expanded, for example. Of course, an attempt was made to Americanize the concept in the form of "Cha$e," which aired on the then-Sci-Fi Channel for a single season in 2008, but it just didn't slap like the original. "Run for the Money" is still ... running, if infrequently, having aired just over 30 episodes since 2004 — and Netflix Asia has rebooted the series with an even more harrowing feel (which you can catch the trailer for above), streaming four episodes in late 2022.

Za Gaman

"Za Gaman," or "Endurance" for you English speakers, sounds like the kind of thing that may or may not actually be an urban legend. Sure, IMDb insists that the show ran on the Fuji Network in 1984 and showcases hilarious DVD re-release art proclaiming it to be "Jackassier than Jackass," but that could just be the merry pranksters of the internet having some fun with us. It's also exceedingly tough to find clips of the show — but fortunately, "60 Minutes Australia" ran a piece on "Za Gaman" in 1985, preserving for posterity a few choice moments from what might be the single most brutal "game show" of all time.

Think "Fear Factor" with a serious chip on its shoulder: Contestants, all college-age dudes, were carted away to far-off locales before being made to endure such pleasant scenarios as having rats crawl all over their exposed bellies while tied down; straining to hold giant, slippery blocks of ice between their bare feet; and essentially plowing a dusty, barren field with their butts. "60 Minutes" referred to the series as a "mobile torture chamber" and opined that its various stunts would have been "the envy of the Spanish Inquisition," and that is probably an understatement. Other "endurance" tasks (seen above) saw contestants racing across a desert in their underwear, being dragged over rough terrain while bound by rope, rotating on a giant spit that dunks them repeatedly in water, and parading around with their heads literally on fire.

Find the Wasabi

Take a reality show involving physical challenges, a travelogue featuring interesting and unique locales, a scavenger hunt involving... well, scavenging, and add a dash of cooking show with plenty of a certain spicy substance on the side, and you'll get "Find the Wasabi," a series that pits celebrities against each other in a bid to overcome adversity, win over the judges, and hunt down the "secret spice." Each season of the series takes place in a different region with new judges, new prizes, and new challenges, with just one common element. One should not have much trouble guessing what that is.

Season 3 of "Find the Wasabi" saw Japanese boy band Boys and Men, not to be confused with Philadelphia boy band-turned-man band Boyz II Men, presiding over the festivities in the Japanese city of Nagoya, which is just lousy with amazing culture, great cuisine, and lest we forget, wasabi. Contestants participated in events such as "food rallies," which saw them tasked with hunting down and scarfing as many of Nagoya's awesome local dishes as possible in the allotted time; "photo battles," which challenge them to find local landmarks and take selfies with them; and more such silliness. The season 3 winner was Filipino actor and singer Khalil Ramos, who outperformed all others to become the first from his country to win the competition, and who got to perform with Boys and Men at the Nagoya Dome for thousands of screaming fans as a reward for his victory.

Brain Wall

Comedy duo Tunnels created a Japanese pop culture mainstay with their Fuji TV variety show "Tonneruzu no Minasan no Okage deshita," or roughly translated, "The Tunnels: Thanks to Everyone." On the air for a full two decades, the show featured plenty of wacky segments including musical parodies, skewed takes on manga and anime, and the duo's unique brand of sketch comedy — but in the Western world, the show is most notable for a game show-styled segment entitled "Nakabe," roughly translated as "Brain Wall." In case the premise of the game isn't immediately discernible from that title, it may help to know that its unofficial, affectionate moniker among Westerners is a touch more succinct: "Human Tetris."

In the segment, contestants dressed in pads and helmets face off against a steadily advancing wall (which is thankfully made of Styrofoam) with weird shapes punched into it; behind them is a pool of water. Their task, of course, is to contort themselves into the prescribed shape so that they can pass through the wall, for which they score points; no points are awarded if contestants end up in the water, or if they damage the wall in any way. As one might expect, the premise behind the show has been licensed for adaptation in the United States; an American version titled "Hole in the Wall" premiered in 2008 but somehow failed to catch on.

Unbeatable Banzuki

American audiences have been enjoying the athletic competition show "American Ninja Warrior" for years now, but some may not know that the series is based on a popular Japanese series — "Sasuke," which was edited and presented as "Ninja Warrior" in the U.S. before the American competition was established. In Japan, "Sasuke" had a predecessor, a sister series that was more like a raging bully of a big brother: "Kinniku Banzuke," also known as "Unbeatable Banzuke" (and also known as "Muscle Ranking"), which similarly tested the strength, agility, and endurance of its competitors, only in much more hardcore fashion. Sure, "Ninja Warrior" and its U.S. counterpart are certainly strenuous tests of competitors' mettle, but to really excel at some of the events of "Banzuke," it would really help for one to be, say, Spider-Man.

Take, for example, the challenge known as "Hand Walk" (seen above) in which contestants must navigate platforms, parallel bars, and stairs while walking (you guessed it) on their hands. Another event, titled "Power Island," saw contestants trying to field a 100-pound plastic ball as it careened down a slope; they then had to push it to the top and balance on top of it while negotiating a set path. Unsurprisingly, this event led to the end of the series; in 2002, two contestants sustained serious injuries to their spinal cords while partaking in this challenge. The incident caused the network to suspend the show while its safety policies were reviewed — a review that apparently didn't go well, for the series was canceled that year.