The Enduring Appeal of Takeshi's Castle
If you know what Takeshi’s Castle is, you need to face the reality that you’re a person of a certain age. The original Japanese game show first aired between 1986 and 1990 and has since become a global phenomenon. Even now, decades after it first aired, Takeshi’s Castle continues to draw interest from newer generations, thanks to uploads on YouTube and special one-offs over the years.
What was Takeshi’s Castle
It’s no secret that Japan is the land of insane variety and game shows on TV, and Takeshi’s Castle is arguably one of the first to achieve truly global popularity. The concept was simple: contestants go through various obstacles and physical challenges to “storm” and try to “take” the castle owned by “Emperor” Takeshi, who was played by the Japanese comedian and host Takeshi Kitano. According to sources, Kitano wanted the game show to become something like a live action Super Mario Bros., which, by the early 1980s, had become a monster hit for video game company Nintendo.
The game show started out with about 80 to 100 contestants under Commander Hayato Tani, who wants to invade the castle. The “forces” were ordinary Japanese men and women who signed up for the show—"bus drivers, gardeners, students, construction workers, candy store owners and house painters,” according to the show’s first episode.
The contestants are made to go through grueling challenges, such as scaling a wall through muddy grounds, battling Takeshi’s guards with squirt guns, swinging on a rope and landing on a narrow platform, going through a maze, and various other obstacles. Contestants who fail these challenges are disqualified, while those make it go on to the next stage of the competition.
Finally, those who are left actually “storm” the castle and do battle with the emperor’s imperial guards, using squirt guns to try and pierce paper targets attached to each of their heads. In later episodes, the final contestants ride makeshift “tanks” and fight the emperor himself, who is on his own tank which is much bigger and armed with a much bigger water cannon. The contestant who gets to destroy the emperor’s paper target walks away with one million yen, which, in those days was worth about $8,000 or about $19,000 in today’s exchange rate.
As the years went on, the show added challenges that were bigger and more complicated, including a race up an inclined plane with actual rolling boulders (presumably made with something than solid rock) to try and stop the invading hordes.
Takeshi’s Castle in the Philippines
Audiences in the Philippines first got to watch Takeshi’s Castle in 1990, when it was broadcast on IBC Channel 13. The dialogue was dubbed in Filipino, and later episodes had local actors Anjo Yllana and Smokey Manaloto—playing Takeshi and his right-hand man Iwakura—providing commentary on what’s happening on the playing field. Yllana and Manaloto’s comedic spiels helped add a local flavor to the TV show.
As a kid who used to watch the show in the early 90s, I’ll admit the thrill and fun was in seeing the contestants going through the challenges and laughing at their foibles and desperate attempts to beat the odds and actually get to the final encounter with the emperor. I always rooted for them, even though it became increasingly clear that the odds were hopelessly stacked against them. Throughout the course of the series, I can remember only one time when the emperor’s paper target got drenched and finally ripped, signaling his defeat. I can still feel the overwhelming feeling of satisfaction when that happened. Finally, the Takeshi’s Castle has fallen and the little people won.
The show ended in 1990, but, save for a couple of specials and revivals, it lives on today in reruns and clips on YouTube. And, of course, there have been numerous spinoffs and outright rip-offs “inspired” by Takeshi’s Castle over the years, including Wipeout, American Ninja Warrior, Ultimate Beastmasters, and many others. But ask anyone who ever saw the original and there’s no question which one stands out as a clear winner.