How Ninja Warrior Went From G4TV Phenomenon To Being A Part Of American Culture

American Ninja Warrior producer Arthur Smith discuses why the game show got so big and its appeal.

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While NBC's American Ninja Warrior has become a part of US culture, its roots are based in Japanese game shows, as it is an adaptation of the competition series Sasuke, which formerly aired on the G4 network. Its journey from a syndicated Japanese show on a video gaming network to capturing the attention and minds of Americans on broadcast network TV isn't a simple one though.

American Ninja Warrior producer Arthur Smith of A. Smith & Co. has spent much of his time working on unscripted and competition programming in the United States. His first taste of Japanese game shows came from his time working on ABC's I Survived A Japanese Game Show. The reality game show took unsuspecting Americans and sent them to Japan to compete in various games akin to what game shows air in Japan.

I Survived A Japanese Game Show (Photo credit: A. Smith & Co. Productions)
I Survived A Japanese Game Show (Photo credit: A. Smith & Co. Productions)

"It was funny because in the first season the competitors had no idea where they were going," Smith explained to GameSpot. "We pick them up at the airport, and then just went around to the other side of the airport, and then say, 'Oh, now we're going to Japan.' It was a really funny moment, and they were all game."

Smith explained that I Survived A Japanese Game Show was the first American game show shot entirely in Japan. To keep the aesthetic similar to what you would actually see on a show airing in Japan, Smith said they hired a Japanese art director: "If we bring in an American art director, he would never do the crazy combination of color patterns that they would do."

The show itself was unique to American audiences, opening a door to a world of game shows that were culturally different. "A lot of the games deal with being silly, being embarrassed, or being bold, being vulnerable in a way, and not taking yourself too seriously," Smith said.

These concepts are very different from what American audiences typically see in their game shows, which are about personal stories and overcoming the odds to triumph. Additionally, there are many Japanese game shows that are near impossible to win like the events from Unbeatable Banzuke, which aired in America on G4. The other big name G4 game show was Sasuke, which people now know as Ninja Warrior--which saw competitors training their bodies to conquer a near-impossible course. While Ninja Warrior was unlike anything American audiences had ever seen, it resonated with people watching G4.

Zhanique Lovett during the American Ninja Warrior Women's Championship (Photo credit: Elizabeth Morris/NBC)
Zhanique Lovett during the American Ninja Warrior Women's Championship (Photo credit: Elizabeth Morris/NBC)

Former G4 general manager Neal Tiles and Smith knew that Ninja Warrior (Susuke) was the one program doing well on the network at that time, so when G4's owner Comcast bought NBC, the two went to the network and asked them to put the finale on as an act of synergy. "A lot of people had thought, 'Hey, it's a game show coming from the game network,' but they really missed what the show was about," explained Smith. "Everyday people do extraordinary things, with great backstories and great athleticism."

What Smith loved about Susuke was that it was real people competing in something extraordinary. And when it came time to bring the show to television as the revamped American Ninja Warrior, that was something he wanted to highlight. "These courses are impossible, and most people are going to fail," Smith explained. "We want people to go on that journey. There's a lot of admiration in the attempt, and you don't have to complete [the course] to be successful, and you don't have to complete it to be appreciated.

"In some ways, that was the inspiration of the Japanese show. Sasuke has been around for a long time, and they've had thousands [of competitors]. In all the years, they would have like two or three people who completed the course. And it doesn't matter because we watch it for a different reason. And when there is success, it's such a huge moment."

Since American Ninja Warrior debuted in late 2009, it's seen massive success on NBC. It's currently in Season 13 and has had numerous spin-offs, including Esquire Network's Ninja vs. Ninja and two seasons of American Ninja Warrior Junior, which will begin shooting its third season this summer and will air in September on the Peacock streaming service, according to Smith.

In the US, it's become more than just a game show. The popularity of American Ninja Warrior is parallel with the rise in people doing CrossFit, along with the popularity of parkour. While correlation is not causation, American Ninja Warrior's obstacle courses are the perfect challenge for those who devote their time to these activities. As Smith put it, "It's not just a show. It's a movement." Ninja Warrior has become a part of American culture, whether it be a Ninja Warrior birthday party or someone building a course in their own backyard.

(Main image: Meagan Martin, photo by Elizabeth Morris)

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