Sasuke: Ninja Warrior

I enjoy a good sport every now and again, but often it’s not the most popular sport (minus baseball). I prefer more traditional sporting affairs, especially wrestling, but sometimes, a modern take really captures the imagination in a way I couldn’t anticipate. Enter the niche world of Sasuke, or Ninja Warrior.

What is Sasuke: Ninja Warrior?

For most Americans, this show started with airtime on G4, the twice-defunct gaming network. Color me surprised when it popped back into my life in a hotel room in Kyoto, where I saw a marathon of the competition on Japanese TV. Everything was there: The first round with the whacky entertainers and comedians trying their best, the inspirational stories of underdogs, and the returning all-star competitors, all trying to overcome the challenges of Mt. Midoriyama to ultimately make it to the final scaling in an attempt to be named the ultimate ninja warrior. This is said to be Kanzenseiha (完全制覇), or Complete Domination (also translated as Complete Victory or Total Victory). Your reward is 2 million yen (about 15,000 dollars as of Jan 1, 2023).

An imagining of the man himself: Sarutobi Sasuke (photo courtesy of BKRBudo)

The show started back in 1997 and was held twice a year. It dropped down to once per year in 2012, had a brief twice-a-year stint in 2017-2018, and finally settled down to once a year. It’s named after the famed fictional ninja, Sarutobi Sasuke. His stories place him at the end of the Sengoku period, or that time Japan was aflame in civil war. The stories put him at the battle of Osaka and generally have him being really badass. He was the leader of the legendary ninja group the Sanada Ten Braves. The legends say he was raised by monkeys, which explains his insane agility and mobility. As a matter of fact, his surname, Sarutobi, literally means “monkey jump” (猿, or saru for monkey, and 飛, or tobi for jump). Some believe he was based on real-life figures such as Kozuki Sasuke and Sarutobi Nisuke.

What Makes Sasuke Amazing?

For me, the realization didn’t come until watching this year’s competition: The competitors aren’t competing with one another. There is no competition among contestants. Instead, they focus on overcoming the mountain and its challenges, fighting for personal goals, and more so, doing that altogether. There is a sense of camaraderie in the show that is genuinely heart-warming. No one is in direct competition and multiple winners can be crowned on the show. The mountain is so brutal that it has never happened, but the fact that your victory isn’t dependent on beating others, only mastery of your own physicality and the obstacle courses, must be a welcomed relief to competitors.

The fact that it broadcasts around the New Year is also lovely: You can get a nice dose of inspiration as the year starts to help carry you through the remaining months of winter (if you’re in the northern hemisphere, that is!).

Sasuke 40th Anniversary Promo Banner (via TBS Sasuke Official Website)

Only four competitors have ever won Sasuke a total of six times: The man, myth, and legend who I watched on old reruns when I was in high school, Kazuhiko Akiyama, was the first to achieve Kanzenseiha in 1999. He was a crab fisherman, but has since transitioned to massage therapy, due to an eye condition. Another legend from my high school viewing, and another fisherman, achieved Kanzenseiha in 2006, which he whole-heartedly deserved. Urushihara Yuuji and Morimoto Yusuke are names I’m not too familiar with (sorry if I forgot them from earlier competitions!), but they are the two two-timers who achieved Kanzenseiah in two separate competitions. I’m absolutely blown away that I was able to see the first victory when I was in high school; it was one of the most exciting sports moments I think I’ve ever seen and followed closely.

Sample course from American Ninja Warrior in Cleveland, OH (photo courtesy of Artix Kreiger, via Wikimedia Commons CC2.0 License)

Lucky for me, this year’s Sasuke brought back all of the past winners to compete once more! It was insane to watch them compete; Morimoto Yusuke even made it to the final round, to the final vertical climb once more. It was one of the most intense, action-packed, nail-biting Sasuke’s I think I’ve ever seen! If you can get access to it, I highly, highly recommend you check out this year’s (2022) in particular!

Now that the internet is better at record keeping and finding out information, I know how, when, and where to watch Sasuke in the future. I’m so lucky that I was able to rediscover this gem of athleticism, and hopefully, I’ve convinced you to give it a look, even if your country has its own version (Americans will be familiar with American Ninja Warrior, I think!). The original Japanese has this charm about it that is hard to replicate, so I hope you give it a watch if you can!

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