Hana Kimura passed away this weekend. She was 22 years old, with bright pink hair and quirky, glamorous costumes that she wore as part of her thriving career as a female professional wrestler. Some of us might have come to know of Hana through her wrestling career but it was her role in Terrace House that truly catapulted her into mainstream spotlight.
The Terrace House entertainment model has always been rather unique. It is aired in a kind of lagged real time, meaning the episodes we watch are only several weeks behind from our present day and the show is continuously being filmed. Framed as completely organic and unscripted, the show also allows the members to continue living their lives as per usual, aside from having to move into the house. They go to work, they still see their friends and family, they can go online. Terrace House members have complete access to what is happening in the real world because there are supposedly no barriers, and sells itself as real as our day to day lives.
Contrast this against other reality TV shows like Masterchef, where they wrap up production before the first episode is even aired. While Masterchef contestants feign real time by posting content on their social media channels to reflect the latest episode, we know that all crucial decisions have already been made, eliminations already called for and done, leaving just a winner to be announced in due course. Terrace House also differs to other reality shows in a more similar genre. The original Big Brother had its contestants (“HouseGuests”) constantly under surveillance but they themselves were completely isolated from the outside world. No phone, television, Internet, magazines or newspapers and a time when social media was not a thing. In American Idol, public opinion would come to matter from around the semi-final stage where viewers could call in and text to vote for their favourites. But the format for American Idol is such that the contestants themselves are mostly protected, with glimpses into their actual lives and personalities only limited to heavily edited montages played before they sing and for the few minutes post-singing when they interacted with judges.
The Terrace House model borders into performance art, where external influences from the presenters and audience can and does shape the outcome of the show. We’ve seen elements of this such as in ‘Guilty Samurai’ Episode 25 of Terrace House: Aloha State where the presenters gifted Taishi Tamaki with a Shinuhodo no Koi t-shirt, a benign gesture but one which effectively breaks the fourth wall. In the current season, it was known publicly that Emika Mizukoshi was becoming affected by the scathing commentary put up by presenter Ryota Yamasato on his own YouTube channel. He addresses this on a later Terrace House episode essentially saying, if you’re signing up to be on television you have to be able to toughen up and tolerate your critics. But to what extent are celebrities expected to bear this responsibility? And if your private life is the reason you are famous, does that give the public the right to scrutinise every part of it?
We know that Hana’s outburst towards Kai in Episode 38 “Case of The Costume Incident” was the beginning of the end of her popularity. It was a frightening display of anger and undoubtedly uncharacteristic of the Hana we had seen so far, but those few minutes cemented the public perception of her and would haunt her for the months to come. Yet it could have been me. It could have been any one of us put in a position where we momentarily lose control of our emotions. And whether that is right or wrong, the difference between us and Hana is that our dirty laundry isn’t aired out for the public to see, to shame us and berate us endlessly for. The vitriol that Hana faced wasn’t just disproportionate to what she had done, it wouldn’t have happened at all had it not been on a reality TV show.
Despite the fact that there are billions of users across it, millions of dollars are made on it, celebrity empires are built on it and cutting edge technology is facilitated on it, social media is still dismissed as a kid’s toy. This continues to be a glaring error as the more we take it lightly, the less awareness there will be of its ramifications and the less responsibility its users will feel for their actions on the platform. The rise of trolls and anonymous accounts are evidence of this, where people say things they would likely never say, were it to happen in ‘real’ life. We are better than this and we should be better than this. Social media needs to be part of communication classes that can teach people basic etiquette. Social media needs to be part of ethics classes where we emphasise that moral values such as kindness must extend into the virtual world. Offences committed online and on social media need to be evaluated as fairly and justly as those committed physically. How many lives we could have saved, if only we had taken social media and its ugly-side, cyberbullying, seriously.
I feel complicit to Hana’s death because I too watch the show with the privilege of having my mask off. I laughed with the presenters, I squealed when my ideal pairings match up and I critiqued the characters, even when they make very human mistakes. Now that the illusion has lifted, I’m sobering up to realise that all reality television did was bring out the ugly and judgmental side of me, although I’ve always stopped short of writing a mean and pointless comment directly to any of the Terrace House members. Yet we all participated, whether actively or passively, witnessing the crimes committed against Hana and doing nothing but watch. Was this weekend her Gladiator moment then, her final act and her cry of ‘Are you not entertained?’
Having been a fan of Terrace House since 2017, I have always loved it for its slice of life vibe and for its serene depiction of daily life in Japan. It has played a big part in my life whether as a way to bond with friends near and abroad or to give me a burst of motivation to move my life to Tokyo. With all of my love for this franchise, I hope they retire it now. It wouldn’t just be prudent or right, it would just be the kind thing to do.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In Japan, please call 119 for immediate help. The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5772-0992. You can also visit them at telljp.com. For those in other countries, visit www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html for a detailed list of resources and assistance.