Ben Hills, Herald Correspondent

Clad in a mask and bright green tights, Mr Boo strides into the spotlight, lowers himself onto a couch and prepares for his performance with a moment of Zen meditation.

First, a gorgeous girl in a gasmask inserts a straw into his backside so he can fart a pea into a saucepan. Then he blows out the candles on a birthday cake. For a grand finale, he provides a windy accompaniment for a few bars of the Blue Danube waltz.

No, this is not the locker room of an Australian under-11 rugby club – this is prime-time Japanese television. Mr Boo, an Englishman who is understandably coy about revealing his features or his real name, is a contestant on one of Tokyo’s totally in-your-face variety shows.

As it turns out, he strains in vain. Mr Boo is not in the same league as La Petomaine, the French vaudevillian who entertained turn-of-the-century crowds in Paris by farting the Marseillaise with perfect pitch. He is beaten by a 70-year-old man who swallows a stack of chips for the game of go and coughs up black or white ones on command.

Or was it the girl who lit up an entire pack of cigarettes at once, then stubbed them out on her tongue?

But never mind. It’s a free trip to Japan for the international contestants who are scouted for the show – and a chance to win a neat $A120,000 if your particular stunt should happen to catch the fancy of the studio audience cheering them on.

Superhuman Colosseum – the contestants are garbed as gladiators, geddit -would give Pat Edgar conniptions, but its ratings continue to climb in one of the most competitive TV markets in the world. No-one is quite sure why. The stunts are carnival slapstick, the humour adolescent e-mail.

“There is always something new,” says Hironobu Matsuhashi, the deputy editor of TV Pia, one of Tokyo’s top TV magazines. “Japanese love that – and they love a contest.”

They are also cheap to produce. Shows like Superhuman Colosseum are shot on a shoestring with cardboard sets and home video production values. They cost a fraction as much as the ever-popular blockbuster samurai costume dramas such as Mito Komon.

Hosted by aging entertainers and squeaky-voiced pubescent “tarento” -Japlish for the vacuous teen “talents” who, like butterflies, briefly dazzle for a month or two, then vanish – these shows are the lifeblood of network TV.

The biggest hit of the season has been TV Asahi’s Ryori No Tetsujin -“Ironman Cuisine” – a cooking show with a difference. Set in a fantasy kingdom ruled by an epicurean monarch, the show pits three “ironman” chefs – one specialising in Japanese cooking, one in Chinese, and one in French – against all-comers.

Given one hour to turn out a banquet on a food theme – last week’s was turkey – the contest is covered like a prize fight, with breathless commentators broadcasting from the dressing-rooms (the kitchens) and video cameras upended into stockpots.

NTV’s Koi No Karasawagi – “Fandango of Love” is the closest you can get to a translation – is another contest with a difference. Each week 20 young women volunteer to describe, seemingly without embarrassment, the shortcomings of their ex-boyfriends – their stupidity, their bad breath, even the size of their private parts.

And then there is Kuizu Akuma No Sasayaki (“The Devil’s Whisper”), a fairly straightforward quiz contest, but again with an only-in-Japan wrinkle. The would-be contestants have to explain why they need the money – the prize is up to $135,000 – before the audience allows them to compete. In recent weeks, we have had an illustrator of pornographic comic books who wanted to buy time to do some serious writing, a man with AIDS who begged for the opportunity to start a business before he died, someone whose car had rolled into the sea, and a young man who couldn’t afford a circumcision operation.

But Superhuman Colosseum is every viewer’s favourite hour of tacky Tokyo voyeurism. Miss Japan crushes a beer can between her shoulder blades. A man chugs a litre of beer, then stops an electric fan with his tongue. A youngster in a purple suit with a punk haircut snorts tomato juice up his nose, then forces it out through his eyeballs. A blindfolded “Robin Hood” shoots off the bikini-top of a busty redhead with a crossbow. A troupe of disco dancers from Yamaguchi Prefecture, average age 63, strut their stuff. An elderly American juggles a three-door refrigerator on his feet. A Russian submerges himself in a big aquarium and holds his breath for eight minutes and 34 seconds.

Switch channels and there is an elderly gent standing in a river strangling a tortoise with his bare hands. No – it’s not another bizarre variety show stunt, it’s a cooking program.

What more could a grey little Tokyo salariman ask for to liven up his Saturday night?

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Monday 26 December 1994
Edition: Late
Section: The Guide
Sub section:
Page: 5
Word count: 904
Keywords: Television programs Japan World TV
1. Tacky Tokyo voyeurism … a fake fakir gets footed
2. Miss Japan crushes a beer-can between her shoulder blades.