Update 05/28/20: Production of Terrace House's current season has been suspended.
For someone who has tried and failed to keep up with the Kardashians’ drama-laden lives, the relative tranquility of the reality show Terrace House was a breath of fresh air. When I dived into my first episode last year, I was drawn to the wholesome portrayal of everyday Japanese life — housemates preparing hot pot together and mundane conversations punctuated with slightly awkward pauses. I was an instant fan.
But over the weekend, I and many others who watched the show were shocked by the death of one of its current members, pro-wrestler Hana Kimura. Her wrestling organisation World Wonder Ring Stardom confirmed that she died on May 22 but did not say the cause of her death. It was later reported that Hana had posted a series of unsettling tweets that included photos of self-harm and a revelation that she received “nearly 100 frank opinions every day” on social media.
“I don’t want to be a human anymore,” she said in a now-deleted tweet. The next day, Hana was found dead in her Tokyo home.
The news caught me off guard and left me reeling. She was just 22, the same age as me. Hana’s death hit close to home. Not just because I’m a fan, but also because I can relate to her. We’re at that time in our lives when navigating and negotiating our own identity in the world is hard enough as it is, even without harsh judgement from others.
The daughter of professional wrestler Kyoko Kimura, Hana made her debut in 2016 at the age of 18 and was a rising star in the joshi wrestling scene. To me and many others around the world, she is most known as the bubbly pink-haired girl on Terrace House, a reality show by Netflix and Japanese network Fuji TV. Terrace House garnered a cult following internationally since joining the streaming platform in 2015. Similar to shows like The Real World and Big Brothe_r, it is about the lives of six young people who share a house together. Its unique appeal, however, is that most episodes are relatively drama-free, steeped in an endearing realism that strike international viewers as “uplifting,” “heartwarming,” and “fascinating.” Yet, Hana’s death is a sobering reminder that reality shows are rarely ever _real.
Since appearing on the show in October 2019, Hana’s persona was that of a friendly young woman who, while painfully shy around her crush, kicks some serious ass in the wrestling ring. But it turns out that she was also a victim of widespread cyberbullying. According to Japan Times, hate comments directed towards Hana escalated rapidly after an episode where she confronted housemate Kai Kobayashi for accidentally ruining a special wrestling costume. It seemed like just another low-stakes fight typically seen in Terrace House, but the “costume incident” was the final straw amid bubbling tensions between the two. It ended with Hana’s outburst in front of other house members and a global audience.
This did not sit well with many viewers in Japan, a place where girls are expected to be kawaii (cute) and demure, where anger should manifest itself in contained seething and never outward rage.
According to local media outlets, after that episode aired, Hana received hateful tweets like “everybody will be happy if you are gone quickly” and “never appear on TV again.”
“Pro wrestling is violent. [Your] words and actions are violent,” one netizen tweeted at Hana. Many other hate comments have been deleted by social media users after the tragedy.
Hana’s final Instagram post was a selfie of her with her cat, overlaid with text that says: “I love you, live long and happy. I’m sorry.”
Comments are inherently part of Terrace House. My favourite segment is when episodes periodically cut to a studio with six panelists who talk about the events on the show. They would commend some house members, poke fun at others, and sometimes provide scathing commentary. It all makes for engrossing meta-entertainment and are usually done in good fun, but could also lead audiences to believe that they can say whatever they want about the members too.
In the wake of Hana’s tragic death, fellow house members and panelists took to social media to express their grief.
“Hana-chan, I’m so sorry, I couldn’t help,” read the Instagram post of fellow house member Violetta Polt.
In a heartfelt tribute, Terrace House panelist Reina Triendl urged everyone to “create a kinder, more loving world in which we do not hurt and damage others."
“Every single Terrace House member sees the comments and suffers from that," reads former house member Ryo’s impassioned Instagram post.
“I just don't understand how people can do that to someone that they've never met before. Do you think you are a perfect human being? Do you know that people are putting their best effort to live their life? You don't know the past that we've been through.”
This incident has also caught the attention of Japanese authorities. Minister of Internal Affairs and Communication Sanae Takaichi announced that he would lead a government task force to discuss internet regulations and cyberbullying legislation.
Like Hana, my emotions ebb and flow and sometimes end in destructive rage. But, unlike Hana, my outbursts were never broadcasted for the world to see. My ugliest mistakes are cocooned in privacy, spared from judgement beyond my closest friends and family.
I used to relish the voyeuristic aspect of Terrace House. A glimpse into attractive strangers’ pseudo private lives was a vicarious substitute for experiences I can’t have. But I have come to realise that this manufactured reality gives us the illusion of intimately understanding the people we’re observing on TV when really, all we know is what they did in weekly 40-minute-long episodes edited expressly for our consumption.
This is why reality TV takes a psychological toll on both participants and viewers. On one hand, participants have to deal with uncensored opinions from their viewers who are emboldened by virtual anonymity in the age of social media. On the other, viewers who are less attuned to the workings of TV production could end up with a warped sense of reality. Taken to the extreme, some may think it’s OK to police the behaviours of reality stars or even hurl abuses at them as a form of catharsis.
Fuji TV suspended the broadcast of an episode that was set to air on Tuesday, May 26. On May 27, the show's official Twitter account announced that they will stop production of the current season as well.
For me, it just doesn’t feel right to continue watching.
Hana’s passing exposes a glaring failure of the Terrace House production team that some fans simply cannot overlook. No Script At All, one of the biggest Terrace House podcasts, announced that they will end their reviews even if episodes resume.
“We can no longer in good faith support a show that doesn’t support its cast in any meaningful way,” their statement read.
I, for one, don’t know how I am going to approach the rest of the episodes, if they air. How do you even go about watching the last months of someone’s life, consuming it as a form of entertainment? How can the panelists continue with their quips about the embarrassing details of someone else's life?
As viewers programmed to seek out dramatic story arcs, it’s dangerously easy to forget that reality TV stars are actual people. We discuss house members like they’re fictional, rooting for character and plot development. I know I have. It’s easy to forget that, like us, they're human too.
Find Koh Ewe on Instagram.