Terrace House: The Charm and Sincerity of Japanese Reality TV11 min readReading Time: 8 minutes
I have to preface this article by making a confession — I loved Terrace House. Loved loved it. And I was heartbroken to see it cut short in the middle of its latest season last year in the midst of the pandemic and the media backlash following the devastating news of one cast member’s suicide after being cyberbullied for her portrayal on the show. It’s controversial now, yes, but for what it’s worth, this show was a cultural phenomenon. So allow me to indulge in a self-assigned mission to piece together what really made this show such a worldwide hit.
The show’s abrupt and arguably untimely halt (there has yet to be any announcement on whether the show will ever return) surely marks the end of an era — it was insanely popular throughout its (almost) five seasons, not only with Japanese audiences but with international audiences as well. Netflix carried the show in 190 countries, with its unusually gentle stance on reality TV and unexpectedly comical one-liners managing to charm audiences worldwide.
I started watching the show relatively late, by recommendation after having guilty pleasure-watched Ainori: Asian Journey, another Japanese dating show that followed a group of six young men and women as they road-tripped across several Asian countries looking for love amongst their travel companions. Terrace House is notably very different from other reality dating shows currently popular in mainstream media, most of which are produced in Western countries. Think the cult favourite Love Island, and newer additions popularised by Netflix like Love is Blind and Too Hot to Handle. There is something about the docile and comforting nature of Terrace House that has a distinctly Japanese flavour that sets it far apart from its Western counterparts.
Terrace House is so refreshing compared to the dating shows that preceded it is that it doesn’t exactly brand itself a ‘dating show’. The only thing that ties cast members of Terrace House to a ‘show’-like existence is the titular House itself — and, of course, the fact that their personal lives are being documented for millions to spectate.
The cameras, though evidently present, glide discreetly through scenes and between cast members, who never address them directly, giving off a sense of obliviousness to the fact they’re being watched. There are no overt games, challenges, or directives given by the showrunners, which are elements usually pumped into such shows to spice things up and incite drama amongst the cast. Cast members navigate social interactions with polite and subdued formality that most Western reality series would deem too dreary to screen. The latter often encourages members to be open, melodramatic, and if it makes for good drama, even rude.
Terrace House is the epitome of gentle comedy, and is for the most part pretty mundane — the cast works regular jobs and mostly only come together to dine. Their conversations, unlike the catty exchanges we normally hear on reality TV, are extremely mundane. Terrace House was a trailblazer for awkward conversations about the weather and unceremonious discussions over what to have for dinner that we didn’t know we needed.
Another thing that sets the show apart was how relatable the cast members were. You definitely relate to at least one, if not a few of them no matter which season you’re tuning in to. Even better, each member probably reminds you of someone you know. While none of the members are extravagantly peculiar people with crazy backstories or outrageously entertaining tendencies, none of them are boring people either. The beginning of each episode lists each member’s current occupation, often also including their career aspirations. Because they’re not isolated from the outside world, work remains a part of their lives on the show and conversations very commonly also centre around their dreams for the future.
This makes viewers invested in the cast for their personal and professional growth, not just their romantic ones. Arguably, it’s the most driven ones who are the most satisfying to watch. The show is inspiring to its viewers because it spotlights young, hardworking and passionate individuals pursuing their goals and getting excited when they accomplish something. Personally, my heart did somersaults when Lauren Tsai from Aloha State booked a gallery exhibition for her stunning illustrations.
And the cast is endlessly diverse in that respect. We see devoted sportspeople: Takayuki Nakamura of Opening New Doors, the pro snowboarder, Tsubasa Sato, from the same season who is the star player of ice hockey team Karuizawa Fairies, and Guy Sato of Aloha State, a pro surfer who sustained a pretty bad injury during a competition but sprung right back up again.
Seeing these people experience setbacks in their careers, and then jumping right back in is heartwarming on a whole other level and makes us all want to get up and cheer them on. We have musicians: Opening New Doors featured Shohei Uemura and his band at their gigs, and Yusuke Aizawa from Aloha State was a ukulele-strumming sweetheart. And we get chefs, entrepreneurs, writers, models, actors, and some are just students trying to figure things out… there’s someone in there for everyone to look up to.
Terrace House is so comforting and, consequently, so successful because the cast is not what we’re all used to seeing in most other reality television series. We’re accustomed to a set of Instagram-ready, model-material knockouts who more often than not already have it made in their field. Terrace House’s sincerity comes from investing screen time on its cast’s personal development. There is no need for gimmicks to make a show interesting when the cast embodies multitudes of human ambition.
Throw all these familiar personalities into a house together and you get romantic ‘plotlines’ similar to those that we either know of or experienced in real life, and it’s always fun(ish) reliving those moments when they play out on screen. In contrast to other reality dating shows that make it their mission to push cast members together, typically making ‘coupling up’ an end goal, Terrace House is infamous for its mild and slow romances that build across many episodes, sometimes taking painfully long to come into fruition, if at all. It lets its cast delve into the tricky details of a blossoming relationship, scenes that audiences relish in. From nerve-wracking first dates to cringeworthy declarations of love, the show provides a hearty and true-to-life depiction of romance that takes ages to pan out, giving time for audiences to savour each moment.
This delightful spin on the mainstream dating show structure makes the romances more authentic, and it is all the more satisfying when couples do emerge.
Afterwards, listening in on the panel of commentator’s lively conversation, where they pick apart every little interaction between the members, engages us as audiences, and in some cases, it can even come in as (though confusing) dating advice for all of us watching. Take what resonates and leave what doesn’t, I guess.
The panel, made up of celebrities who are well-known in Japan, is fixed, save for one or two guests that drop in occasionally during the season. Unlike judges or commentators on most Western reality dating shows, who strut in at pivotal moments announcing a new game rule or kicking off a member of the cast, this panel’s job is incredibly simple — they sit in a living-room set and watch the show with us, and then they judge. They don’t try to sound like professional dating experts. No, they just sit and make petty comments and jokes about what they see on screen. And it makes for comic gold.
The amazing chemistry between the panellists is in a way the final bonding agent to the show, as their comments become somewhat an extension of what everyone watching at home is also doing: observing and judging. These judges don’t hold back. Their comments are brutally honest, even to the point where it comes across as a personal attack to one or a few cast members. Unlike on mainstream dating shows like Love Island and the more recent Too Hot to Handle, their comments are neither scripted nor aim to be politically correct in any way. The panel is simply a group of friends hanging out and watching Terrace House, making remarks as anyone would.
In today’s hyper-sensitive climate, this is a risky game to play. It is, after all, part of what ultimately led to the downfall of the show, when critics blamed Hana Kimura’s death on the panel’s remarks while she was on the show. Last year, the show made headlines when she committed suicide after a wave of vicious online vitriol attacking her behaviour while on the show. This led to the cancellation of the remainder of the then-ongoing season she appeared on, Tokyo 2019-2020, as well as drew the attention of critics worldwide who condemned the showrunners’ alleged neglect that inadvertently caused the 22-year old’s tragic death.
In light of the distressing events that have unfolded, it’s hard to say whether this casual, uninhibited format that made Terrace House such an engaging watch will ever be adopted again. At a time when cyberbullying is rife and can have profound consequences on one’s mental well-being, it is indeed wise to be more prudent about content that would be streamed to and influence millions of people.
However, I will not deny thoroughly enjoying the show especially for the commentators’ unabashed, albeit sometimes crass remarks. Comedian Ryota Yamasato — known endearingly to his fellow hosts and to the audience as Yama-chan — is exceptionally outstanding. Known as ‘the evil one’ on the show for his brazenly honest reviews of the cast’s behaviour, he is arguably the most entertaining to watch. I cannot count how many times his snide remarks and gleeful cackle also made me laugh out loud.
If you’re looking for a feel-good show to binge, Terrace House is the reality TV equivalent of “Chicken Soup for the Soul”. I highly recommend Opening New Doors, the season set in mountain resort town Karuizawa in the Nagano Prefecture to start off, because if it wasn’t obvious enough, it’s my personal favourite. Cosy lodge vibes, winter sports, talking by the fire… this season’s cast is gold and the vibes are immaculate.
All that being said, Terrace House is a brilliantly unconventional approach to reality TV. It definitely had me marathoning whole seasons and becoming emotionally invested in its cast members, which is a feat because I was used to watching reality TV so I could roll my eyes at contestants. For a dating show, it is incredibly inspiring, earnest and wholesome — and I hope we haven’t seen the last of it.
Four seasons of Terrace House are available for streaming on Netflix now.