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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Current State of Sasuke in Japan

I've wanted to write this article for a long time now.  At this point I've decided that I'm writing a couple different posts tackling a few of the problems in the current state of Sasuke as of November, 2013.  My initial in-depth analysis of the situation with my beloved show in Japan was back in April, 2010.  The article was titled "State of Sasuke in Japan".  It's been 3 1/2 years since that post and since then, the show in Japan has gone through massive upheaval.  The obvious was the downfall of Monster 9 in 2011.  The following was a rebirth (of sorts) of Sasuke under full TBS control. The reigns were pulled from creator Ushio Higuchi 樋口 潮 and put in the hands of both Producer Hiroki Kikuno 菊野浩樹 and back in the directorial hands of veteran Sasuke (1-14) Director Masato Inui 乾雅人 (after an 8 year absence).  This article is to concentrate on the Japanese show within the Japanese television market. 
Comparing Sasuke events in the past - All the ratings can be found in the Japanese wiki

High/Low Reference points:

Sasuke 7 - March 17, 2001 - 26.0% ("SASUKE Series" overall highest rating - Shingo Yamamoto 山本進悟 Final)
Sasuke 25 - March 28, 2010 - 7.5% ("SASUKE Series" lowest overall ratings)

Please note I'm only following the last 4 tournaments as I already spoke about the first 25 Sasuke tournaments in my original article.
 "Sasuke Rising" debuts after a 14 month television hiatus under new management.
  • Sasuke 28 - December 27, 2012 - 9.3%  (Forced retirement of All-stars)
  • Sasuke 29 - June 27, 2013 - 9.6%
For now this post it's best to leave aside Sasuke 26 and 27. I'm doing this because this was still during the Monster 9 era, of which is now over. My main focus is the current "Sasuke Rising" ratings problems.  This will include Sasuke 28 and Sasuke 29 only.  As I said before in my old post I will reiterate again, Sasuke is a Japanese show produced for the Japanese viewing market.  I will deal with the international issue in another article.  This is about what is going wrong in Japan with Sasuke.  This is an effort to help the ratings in JAPAN.  As evident from the slide in ratings in the past few years and anemic numbers of late,  Sasuke is in crisis mode. This show is 16 years old and if ratings don't improve Sasuke 30 will most likely be the end of Sasuke in Japan.

RATINGS/TWITTER (28 and 29):
The ratings continue to be the 3rd and 4th worst of all-time. The overall number for Sasuke 28 was 9.3% and Sasuke 29 was 9.6%. The number dropped significantly after the First stage (after the All-stars left in 28 and Backstream fails were mounting in 29).  I was monitoring Twitter trends all night during Sasuke 28 and 29.  During the All-stars runs #Sasuke became the #1 trend topic in Japan solidly.  Before that it was ranked about 4th or 5th place.  Immediately after the first stage in Sasuke 28 the trends literally stopped.  They had dropped out of the top 10..  Sasuke 29 had a different problem.  Twitter trends for Sasuke 29's 2nd Stage only had only one conversation - the Backstream バックストリーム.  There was a firestorm over the problems with the obstacle and the massacre of competitors that tainted the viewing of Sasuke 29.
⑤ Backstream バックストリーム
Usually I don't discuss obstacle problems in Sasuke being a deterrent in Japanese casual viewing in any of my analysis blogs.  Sasuke Rising however had one notable and very promoted exception. It's .. this thing..  the Backstream バックストリーム.  This "obstacle" is the object of hate, fury and condemnation from both Sasuke 28 and HEAVILY despised in Sasuke 29.  The ratings drop from Sasuke 29's Second Stage was so severe that it went from being 4th place down to somewhere near 10th place (and in some articles possibly lower since some lists only include top 10) in Japanese ratings as soon as this thing was shown.  For the Sasuke faithful who continued to watch the show despite this, what followed was a flurry of fury and hate at the randomness of this "obstacle".  Twitter alone was abuzz and a now infamous video of the comparisons of the stream circulated worldwide and particularly in Japan as a topic of vehement criticism.  For the record, for 16 years part of the mystique of Sasuke was you don't EVER touch the water.  This mystique was destroyed when they introduced "swimming" in Sasuke Rising.  It was a clear indication TBS was doing anything grab attention.  "Shock value" is what we call it here in the West.  That however, backfired as it was unwanted negative attention that TBS received.  I strongly believe TBS is still suffering from this today.  DO NOT INCLUDE THE BACKSTREAM IN FUTURE SASUKE TOURNAMENTS.

I'm reiterating a sentiment I posted after my initial Sasuke Rising blogs. For those not familiar with that phrase I'll quote wiki:  "Throw out the baby with the bath water" is an idiomatic expression used to suggest an avoidable error in which something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad, or in other words, rejecting the essential along with the inessential.  In this case TBS' zeal to remove all Monster 9 elements throw out key elements of the show that the fan base needed to keep the show alive. In Sasuke 28 we had the upheaval of the Sasuke base with TBS' project of forced retiring the Sasuke All-stars. That was so badly received that they allowed the All-stars that wanted to return a chance to come back on the show.  "Trying to exorcise the demons created by Monster 9."  That was IS the theme of "Sasuke Rising".  Rising from the ashes created by the crash and burn of the Monster 9 regime.  However, In an effort to get rid of everything that reminded people of Monster 9, they inadvertently alienated their fan base. And not just the hard-core base.. we are the ones who continue to watch the show. The "casual" is what makes the higher ratings.  Part of what makes Sasuke work all of these 16 years it's been on the air.. is familiarity.  Sasuke Rising "feels" like a different show.  Almost like "Viking" where some familiar faces were there but it was a completely different show.  Fans attach themselves to PEOPLE and follow their career through Sasuke.  The obstacles will change.. but the people is what MAKES Sasuke enjoyable.  It's not an Olympics, it's not all celebrities.. it's a host of regular men and women that make the fabric of society as diverse as it is.  In Sasuke 28 TBS tried to throw out the saviors of the show (The All-stars). Sasuke 29 they tried to make the tournament about the obstacles (and the Backstream failed them).  Admit that Monster 9 is bankrupt but do not forsake the success of the show by throwing out key elements that made it popular.  Fans don't care who produces the show. We are not interested in the politics. We want the old Sasuke back.
 Kane Kosugi ケイン・コスギ

This is CRITICAL in the success of Sasuke Rising in Japan. I can't express this stronger.  TBS HAS TO INVEST in this show.  Part of the investment is to pay for celebrities to participate in Sasuke.  Pay to have relevant celebrities with large fanbases that will follow their every move.  What is a bit of irony.. the highest rated Sasuke tournaments of all time had to do with a foreign celebrity hitting it big in Japan.  That was Kane Kosugi ケイン・コスギ. I won't go into the internal politics of his departure or the internal politics of the lack of foreigners in Sasuke today (that will be a future article).  What is of note is that in Sasuke's past you had relevant and very popular celebrities and athletes with strong name recognition OUTSIDE of Sasuke.  The appeal was to see how these famous people intermingle with the average competitors with no name recognition.

NAOTO from EXILE (Sasuke 26)

The last time TBS invested in anyone was in Sasuke 26 when a member from EXILE/J-Soul Brothers was invited.  The only reason TBS did that was because of Cross promotion.  TBS was debuting a new show for EXILE on TBS and used that opportunity to help promote that show within Sasuke. Many things missing from the current Sasuke Rising was the amount of posts online within Japan promoting the upcoming show featuring their favorite "stars". That of course coincided with the lack of relevant celebrities to begin with.  I was happy to see old Sasuke favorites return.  However, for the average non-hardcore Japanese viewer, they need to see non-Sasuke famous celebrities to be interested in watching the show.  Sasuke needs to invest in celebrities with a large fanbase to carry them into Sasuke.  This is a delicate balance.  Right now the balance is off.

Makoto Nagano 長野 誠 during the Monster Box Special


Something that Monster 9 did correctly was use of media exposure to their advantage.  Comparing old Sasuke and Sasuke Rising broadcast habits showed a difference in promotion these days.  I've mentioned this several times.  The idea of cross promotion. Something that used to happen in the past no longer happens - Cross-promotion in other shows and other forms of media. For Sasuke fans we we remember things like Viking, Banzuke, Sportsman #1, Sasukemania, Kunoichi, Muscle Ranking, etc.. There were magazine articles promoting Sasuke celebrities (including projects like Power of Sasuke). Sasuke competitors like Sato Hiromichi and Katsumi Yamada were in other talk shows and even specials that didn't have anything to do with Sasuke. There were even commercials promoting Sasuke merchandise. NONE of that exists now.  Sasuke exists in a vacuum.

  This show was called 時空を超えた大実験! (Experiment that cross time!)

That last few cross promotion eventa were for the now defunct Pro Sportsman #1 shows and the Edo Special. The Sportsman #1 Monster box special was the last time Sasuke competitors and famous athletes competed side by side in a show that was NOT Sasuke. Considering that this special was not a Pro event and even featured 3 All-Stars (Nagano, Takeda and Shingo).  The last cross promotion of a non-athletic show was the Edo Special where you had Sasuke Stars (Shingo, Akiyama, Nagano and Takahashi) and a talento hauling ice from Mount Fuji to Tokyo in a recreation of an edo period event.  This show however was poorly promoted and most people missed watching it since TBS didn't bother marketing the show. No one knew it was on until AFTER it aired.  Heck, it even had a full name change before it aired!  Another channel TV Asahi also promoted Nagano in their show called Densetsu 伝説.  While that aired in a different channel they were still allowed to cross promote Nagano as a star of Sasuke (which is TBS of course).  That show since aired in other international markets.  Again, these things Monster 9 did correctly.

Sasuke 29 had different rules for the 3rd stage


Sasuke 29 was a conflicting show in many ways.  While I understood that it was important to help support the Sasuke ASEAN Open Cup, it was also part of the problem that TBS chose to devote the entire show to it.  They turned the show into one huge "Trials" show.  They altered the rules to fit for that one event. In the end, with the postponement of the ASEAN Cup months later, it proved that you cannot abandon the format of the show for the sake of another event.  If the results of the 3rd stage of Sasuke altered a final there would have been all out war with the hardcore fan-base that is keeping this show alive.  Luckily that didn't happen and now there is a dilemma since Sasuke 30 cannot air before the ASEAN Cup because it will break the continuity of Sasuke 29's message.  To avoid future headaches, never alter your show for the sake of another one. Stay true to your own show and remember your target demographic.  There are ways of accomplishing the same goal without sacrificing the show to the new gimmick.

Local event held in Sendai by the STQ'ers ©Ryo Matachi


Sasuke 30 poses a glorious opportunity that TBS cannot afford to miss.  It is a grand anniversary event representing a milestone few television networks can boast.  30 televised tournaments spanning 17 years in television.  TBS can invite old favorites representing Sasuke's past (my vote would be to bring Kane Kosugi back) alongside the current generation stars (like the All-stars and the Shin Sedai).  They can cross promote this large event in various avenues not just within TBS' airwaves.  They can send out representatives to events (like this unofficial event in Sendai hosted by the current Shin Sedai).  They can cross-promote key Sasuke figures in other TBS shows.   All to bring attention to Sasuke 30's milestone.  I would suggest a televised compilation show (highlights of Sasuke 1-29) of Sasuke to introduce a new generation of fans to this excellent show.  Monster 9 promised this retrospect years ago but it never happened.  This would be a glorious opportunity to show highlights of the 17 years of Sasuke while optimistically looking into Sasuke's future.  Concentrate on the PEOPLE of Sasuke.  This is what the fans have been clamoring for years in Japan.  Exploit nostalgia while creating new memories for the children of this new upcoming generation of potential Sasuke viewers.  This is the perfect setting.  I would be ambitious to hope TBS would promote a future DVD/Bluray release of Sasuke.  This would be a wonderful opportunity to raise a new generation in Sasuke by showing them the long and rich tradition of Sasuke's past.

Shin Sedai (新世代) literally "New Generation"
(some call them the "New Stars" deriving from the Allstars)
2-Time Grand Champion Yuuji Urushihara 漆原裕治 (Cliffer #3), Hitoshi Kanno 菅野仁志, Ryo Matachi (Cliffer #2) 又地諒, Kazuma Asa 朝一眞 and Sasuke All-star Shingo Yamamoto 山本進悟
Las Vegas, Nevada Japan vs USA - ANW5 event.

So as I'm typing this I know Sasuke is in a crisis right now.  With Sasuke 30 being rescheduled again into 2014, we are at a crossroads. If Sasuke does not raise their ratings, Sasuke 30 will be the last one we will ever see.  For those of us who LOVE Sasuke, we would like to see it succeed for a very, very long time.  Hopefully TBS pays attention and corrects the ongoing problems with their approach this old and very beloved show.  A future separate article will deal with the growing concerns of Sasuke as related to the International audience. I strongly believe that one will be just as long and entails different issues than what is going on in this article.  This is especially so because of the precarious nature that Sasuke Japan is in right now.