The rise and fall of Terrace House

In 2018, Terrace House, a Japanese reality show affectionately referred to as “one of the least eventful shows on television”, found its audience in North America. Western audiences fell deeply in love with the anti-reality reality show — however, this swift rise to popularity would also prove to be its downfall just two years later.

The Honeymoon Period

While the basic premise of Terrace House was familiar to North American audiences — six extremely attractive men and women live together in a house — it represented a significant departure from the fighting and decidedly scripted drama we were used to seeing.

Despite the North American penchance for fights, insults, and sex, Terrace House, with its slow moving romances, discussions of life goals, and long cooking scenes crept into the hearts and minds of many a Netflix viewer. 

Season 4 cast members of TV show Terrace House sitting on couch
Terrace House: Opening New Doors. Photo Credit: The Verge

Also unlike American reality dramas, Terrace House members are immediately upfront about why they came on the show. After meeting, castmates sit down to discuss what they look for in a partner and why they joined the show. While some admit they came to find “a love worth dying for”, others seek to forge lifelong friendships, have flings, or simply observe a change of pace in a beautiful home. 

Castmates work or go to school during filming, meaning that for entire episodes certain members are sometimes absent. Additionally, members are free to leave (or “graduate”), which means you’re never sure how many episodes you’ll have with each person, or who they’ll be replaced with when they bid the house farewell. 

Panel discussions about what the viewer has just witnessed punctuate the show. The comedian commentators provide some much-needed cultural context, filling North American viewers in on nuances that they might have missed. They also provide witty, fun, and occasionally mean observations about the cast and how they’ve acted during the episode. 

Commentators of TV show sitting around a table and laughing
Terrace House commentators. Photo credit: Jezebel

Opening New Doors was the 4th season of Terrace House, and was the first to take North America by storm. As we watched, the cast paired off, going on long romantic dates in Nagano and having long heart-to-hearts. As we watched, the cast supported each other wholeheartedly as they pursued their dreams and love tentatively blossomed between fan favourites. 

Terrace House felt like a respite from an increasingly dystopian society, and the simple relationships seemed a far cry from the failed trust exercise that is online dating in 2020. Terrace House seemed destined for greatness after its breakout hit season. However, what followed was a drastic fall from grace.

From Breakout Hit to Breaking Point

Tokyo 2020-2021 — the latest season of Terrace House — debuted to significant fanfare in North America. The season was set in Tokyo, giving the series an opportunity to exhibit unique dates while showcasing the city for the upcoming Olympics. But once the show began, it became clear that something was different. 

The popularity of the show in North America meant more viewers, but it also meant the cast came under increasing scrutiny, and the show’s authenticity was called into question by fans. Even the commentators began to speculate about the motivations of castmates in coming to Terrace House. Ryo Tawatari, a professional basketball player, left the show abruptly after being accused by fans as being calculating and joining the show only to bolster his image. 

Suddenly, cast members were cooking less and fighting more, with explosive altercations taking place almost immediately. The show began to feel — for lack of a better word — a little more American. 

Where disagreements in Terrace House used to deepen friendships or lead to self-examination, each minor fight suddenly seemed amplified in Tokyo 2020-2021 — and the commentators were relentless in fuelling the fire and picking apart the cast. After watching what they said about her in a past episode, one castmate broke down, saying “It’s TV, and I know it’s out of my control. I can’t remember the last time I felt this low…Living in this house is excruciating.” 

Gradually more English speaking castmates moved into the house, and when a blond, Caucasian castmate showed up, a commentator quickly remarked that he had “never seen someone so beautiful”. It seemed undeniable that the show was catering to its newfound American audience by ramping up the drama.

Photo Credit: Reality Tidbit

A House Built on Sand

After generally disliked housemate Kai Kobayashi ruined a custom made wrestling costume belonging to Hana Kimura, the most explosive fight in Terrace House history took place. In this scene, Kimura’s anger over the incident is incendiary — shouting, swearing, and getting physical with Kobayashi. Her behaviour is uncharacteristic – both of the show and of what North American viewers had come to expect of Japanese conduct. 

According to multiple accounts, the scene was most likely scripted to satiate drama-hungry American audiences, and resulted in swift backlash against Kimura.

She was harassed and bullied online in the weeks following the fight, with vicious messages encouraging her to “die” or “disappear”. As Kimura herself put it, “Every day, I receive nearly 100 honest opinions and I cannot deny that I get hurt.”

Less than three months after the episode aired, Kimura tragically died by suicide at 22 years old.

Screenshot from Netflix of Hana Kimura wearing white t-shirt
Hana Kimura. Photo Credit: US Magazine

While we will never know what caused this, cyberbullying is a very real problem — particularly today, where there is little recourse. But the insistence of the producers to amplify disagreements only heightened the criticism cast members dealt with. Similarly, the harsh criticism of the commentators normalized a mean-spirited critique of each cast member’s every action. 

Reality television, particularly on a show like Terrace House, creates the fantasy of intimacy. It makes viewers feel like they know the cast members personally; and yet, the barrier of the screen also strips fans of empathy. It means that we love our heroes harder and we hate our villains that much more. And social media has given us the opportunity to tell them.

Kimura’s death and the subsequent outcry from fans and former castmates has revealed something darker lurking behind the peaceful illusion of Terrace House. As of now, it’s unclear if the show will ever resume. 

The previous episodes and earlier seasons remain available on Netflix, offering a glimpse into the past, a carefully-constructed utopian world of romance, peace, and beauty that feels believable. Whether Terrace House was ever really authentic is still up for debate, but it’s clear that global viewership and social media made that illusion impossible to maintain. That Terrace House, as well as the world it represented, is over.

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