Terrace House: Visualising ‘Asian Modernity’

Social television and by extension, popular media, forms a central reflective lens through which one can observe and debate the general assumptions of cosmopolitanism in the contemporary Global Internet age. The frameworks of argument presented by Youna Kim in her exploration of the Korean Wave (with a particular focus on TV dramas) are grounded within understanding the discursive construction of an ‘East Asian Popular Culture’ (Chua, 2004), as well as exploring the shifting of the cultural export tides, as global awareness and appreciation for Asian media expands.

However, it should also be noted that Kim’s frameworks for understanding the popularity of Hallyu can and should be applied to different and more recent happenings of East Asian popular culture finding their place of influence on a global stage, both from the lens of foreign viewers, as well as migrants of Asian origin, as they act as functional perspectives to make sense reoccurring patterns of engagement. In this essay, I analyse the Japanese reality TV show Terrace House with central reference to and extending from Kim’s frameworks; in particular the ‘A-ha!’ emotion, everyday reflexivity and diasporic nationalism, while also dissecting the unique segments of interest that makes this show popular.

Concerning the purely thematic appeals of Terrace House, one wouldn’t find it hard to start checking off repeated phrases that one may use to describe how it approaches ‘reality television’: interpersonal drama that is authentically presented, “a nice respite, almost a suspended reality.” (Monnier, quoting Naomi Hirahara, 2017). Terrace House’s content manager at Netflix Japan, Kaata Sakamoto, homed in on the show’s unique approach to its presentation:

Terrace House pays particular attention to subtleties in the daily lives of the cast. Instead of scandalous affairs, fistfights, or verbal abuse, you see more incremental changes in their relationships as well as their hopes and dreams beyond romantic pursuits…” (Monnier. Quoting Sakamoto, 2017)

The contrasting approaches to reality television, comparing American productions such as The Bachelor and The Real World America’s abrasive cast members, constant escalation of verbal abuse, fights and camera work that help destabilize the viewing experience for that rush of drama with the slow, in-ward centric framing of Terrace House (Jen, 2017), allows the latter to appeal just from an angle of uniquity. However, it is also here where Kim’s A-ha! Emotion framework helps clarify the arguably deeper level of appreciation viewers of Terrace House can develop with the show.

In observing how Korean women experience TV drama, Kim identified such productions as providers of ‘topical material for everyday talk and functions as an emotional, revelatory, self-reflexive and shared cultural resource, almost like a ritual social event.’ (p75) This pleasure of validation of their own brand of talk and everyday language also lends to Kim’s argument that Korean TV drama generates a certain therapeutic quality, from how the on-screen characters’ emotional journeys were talked about by the audience, relating it back to their own lives and experiences (p76). In a similar vein, Terrace House’s cast of room-mates were presented to the audience with the expressed intent of foregrounding their individualised journeys of intimacy, self-identity and finding love, and what makes it resonant to a globalised audience lies in its more tender, quiet emotions which recognises the human experience, ‘the texture of life that reaches not only the intimate sphere but also the heart of the reflexive self’ (p77).

The cultural disconnect individuals feel when they are first exposed to ‘normal’ Japanese societal functions; everything from politeness, public protocol to casual courting and adding assorted honorifics to each other’s names, forms a ripe environment for a back-and-forth everyday reflexivity: learning to observe action and its contexts to understand the precedents of everyday life. Of course, reflexivity is a universal practice, one that is intrinsic to human activity (p78), but within contemporary everyday life and the inevitable informational overload, this…complex and intense process of mediation, incorporating new information into environments of action, requires a hook that entrusts audiences with relatability.

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Terrace House is a multi-season production that was taken over by Netflix after airing in Japan in 2012, but a consistent aesthetic pattern for when the production was in Japan (one season was filmed in Hawaii), the central hub of the action is always a urban apartment with modern furnishings, occupied by youthful and beautiful young people: a curious theme that portrays youthful sentimentality and acts as a sit-in for what Erni and Chua describes as ‘Asian modernity’ (Erni and Chua, 2005). Terrace House adopts what Kim described for Korean TV dramas’ visualisation of the young viewership’s desires and aspirations – beautiful and urban, young professionals and aestheticized lifestyles, where pure love is still possible.’ (2005 and 2008). Such elaborate sets paired with what I have said above regarding Terrace House’s format of portraying its young and beautiful room-mates makes the show an especially well-tuned source of aspiration for the young and savvy, as well as reflexivity in a globalised community: a space that extends the space for reflexivity.

The YouTube channel ‘Matt VS Japan’ also published a video detailing an additional point which I argue relates to the reflexive popularity of Terrace House: its authentic exploration of the lives of young Japanese individuals does present a linguistic and cultural barrier that threatens a disconnect between the international audience. Through the inclusion of a commentative panel (which also integrates with Greg Urban’s study of Metaculture, of which this essay will not be going into detail for), which passes comments and speculation on the codified interactions between the room-mates, suddenly…the audience is treated to a meta experience that both filters their experience, as well as providing an alternative reading for additional intrigue. Matt derived his argument, that Terrace House is an essential watch when studying Japanese, from how the show’s two formats of showing authentic Japanese social interactions and providing a commentative panel to discuss (and gossip) about the various subtle tics and ‘double meanings’ behind the words and gestures. The concept of ‘reading the air’ exclusively highlights how a seemingly friendly dinner date between two parties can be an antagonistic encounter underneath the polite and cheeriness, how seemingly friendly advice over said dinner can be read as an incredibly judgemental lecture (Matt VS Japan, 2018).

Bringing this study back full-circle, one must acknowledge how globalisation as a consequence of increasing multi-directional flows of cultural, ethnic media, information and communicational technologies facilitating transnational movements, means that the new complex conditions for identity formation among individuals, the relationship and relatability of migrants with their countries/cultures of origin can be equally discombobulated. Combining this perspective with all the ideas I’ve introduced above, one must acknowledge how Terrace House can also provide a bridge to reconnect old, seemingly faded identities, lying dormant. Freelance writer Mia Nakaji Monnier, who wrote about her experiences revisiting her Japanese homeland during college, very tellingly commentated on the emotional intricacies of diaspora; a feeling of displacement in the new cultural environment, as well as losing touch with their origins:

“As my host mum showed me around the small family farm, before I could catch myself, I burst into tears. Something about the landscape – the pale green trees, the cicadas, the musty smell of drainage ditches – felt innately familiar yet impossibly distant.” (2017)

It is precisely this shared experience, that Monnier identifies to be her hook for enjoying Terrace House. It is not so much that the show gave Japanese migrants a definitive answer to their eternal questions of belonging and identity, but that the experience Terrace House did provide, was a fleeting one that indeed reconnected them to a part of themselves that they can never discard:

“I felt grateful to live in a time of accessible international TV…during the time I spent binge-watching Terrace House, I started thinking in Japanese for the first time since I lived in Kyoto. The rhythms of the language flowed through my head in a way they hadn’t in years, if ever. I spoke my thoughts out loud, glad to have the words again.” (2017)

Terrace House is a new experience for many, one that provokes responses of surprised appreciation in its uniquity and organic connection to a culture that is entirely new to them. But it is also a familiar and deliberately emotional experience, that is derived from an age of social television and meta self-referencing that is amplified by a global network of inter-connected cultural exports. The chic, urban and youthful relatability is spiced with a social culture both enticing and intriguing. All the while, Terrace House’s global platform reconnected displaced individuals with a contemporary peek into what they had thought they left behind: an ever-changing, ‘youthful and modern’ Japan.

TERRACE HOUSE: Opening New Doors

References

Chua, B.H. (2004). Conceptualizing an East Asian popular culture. Inter- Asia Cultural Studies, 5:2, pp200-221

Chua, S. Erni, J. (2005). Asian Media Studies: Politics of Subjectivities. Oxford: Blackwell.

Jen, B (2017). Terrace House: Elevating Reality TV. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=Yhb-Eh7dyZI

Kim, Y (2013). Korean Wave: Pop Culture in the Global Internet Age: Why Popular? Why Now? The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global. London: Routledge, pp75-92.

Leanna. (2017). Why Terrace House is What Reality Shows Needed. Crunchy Peach (blog). https://thecrunchypeach.com/2017/08/17/why-terrace-house-is-what-reality-shows-needed/

Matt VS Japan. (2018). Terrace House and “Reading the Air”. YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9nvWCVTQCU

Monnier, M.N. (2017). How A Japanese Reality TV Show About Nothing Became A Global Hit. Buzzfeed News. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/miamonnier/why-terrace-house-is-the-perfect-gateway-reality-show-into

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