the destroyer > reviews > The Physical Challenge: Someday Ninja Warrior Will Be Useful to You / Hubert Vigilla

I suffer from depression and have for many years. Most times it's just a tinge of melancholy that anyone who knows me well enough probably senses, an electric hum as you walk past transmission towers, but occasionally the depression becomes unbearable and it takes a lot of effort to try to keep the light on, for my sake and for the sake of others. The effort has become more difficult to sustain the more serious the dark spells become and the older I get. I suspect both are somehow linked.

In the past I've generally not been forthcoming about these sorts of things except when they got particularly bad, and even then to just a handful of people, and even still just a careful fraction of the full extent of my glumness. I'm still reticent (also ashamed) to share this fraction with others, but at times I can't help it. It's the same way that someone can make his or her own way through a dimly lit room with ease but may instinctively cry out when stumbling, sometimes crawling, through the dark. A smile from a friend is a reason to smile back, and a loved one saying they care or are concerned—worried, they may want to say, but they're being delicate—a reason to stand up straighter. Yet even for those who regularly confide in others, there are black moments—ones of the three-in-the-morning variety that F. Scott Fitzgerald mentioned in "The Crack-Up"—that unavoidably have to be faced alone. In these cases, one needs something, anything, to help get up and get out of the pit of despair, and any desperate little joy in the past or the present can serve as a kind of foothold or handhold.

This may partially explain my love for obstacle course game shows.

* * *

Makoto Nagano is a 43-year-old fisherman and ship captain. He is also a ninja.

300 days out of the year, Nagano trains on his boat for the show Sasuke, an obstacle course game show in Japan. The program aired in the United States under the name Ninja Warrior and spawned an American spin-off.

Nagano is known for his consistency, and has competed in every season ofSasukefor the last 14 years. After an especially strong run on the show—four appearances in the final stage in seven consecutive seasons—Nagano was named one of the Sasuke All-Stars, an elite group specializing in absurd feats of athleticism.

* * *

During my most severe bouts of depression I've experienced an unrelenting form of the mental and physical lethargy that accompanies despair. It would typically be the worst in the morning, and there were times I couldn't get out of bed. Something like a weight was on my chest, and, besides, when you're that low and feeling rudderless, why put in the effort of getting up only to feel disappointed at the end of the day?

Sleeping off the despair never worked, so after hitting snooze on my phone a few times I'd grab a book near the bed. Reading was a fog, just an act of looking at the words; their meaning, their music too, failed to stick even if I read aloud. I'd give up reading and stare at the ceiling trying to process the shadows of my thoughts, which seemed to have formed a precise logical syllogism that justified my self-loathing. In retrospect, this argument for hopelessness was a kind of self-perpetuating chain of miserable tautologies. Eventually, it would just be my thoughts on repeat and my eyes at the ceiling and the minutes going by, on and on, enervating.

The quality of light in the room would change gradually. Even on overcast or winter days it's easy to notice: there are steepening angles to diffuse light, and soft, gray degrees of brightness. By late morning, hungry, thirsty, or simply needing to piss, I'd finally get up and trudge forward, then hurry through the rest of the day to make up for all that lost time.

* * *

Sasuke has four stages. Competitors must complete each stage to advance to the next. The layout is redesigned from season to season, but certain kinds of obstacles are a constant.

The first stage has a time limit and typically consists of a series of short jumps like higher-level hopscotch; a log roll that tests the grip against G-force, sometimes nausea; a leap from a trampoline to a narrow pair of walls ("Jumping Spi-dah!"); a run up a wall curved inward like a tidal wave.

The second stage has a shorter time limit. There's typically a leap and swing from a length of chain; a trio of gates to dead lift (66 pounds, 88 pounds, 110 pounds); worst of all, the Salmon Ladder, in which an unattached pull-up bar is used to ascend a series of rungs applying the kind of physics reserved for Mario games.

The third stage is unforgiving on the hands and upper body. Competitors dangle over pits and support their weight by grabbing doorknobs, clutching handfuls of curtain, clinging to a series of 15 centimeter ledges, advancing a bar down a rail to a dead stop before generating the necessary momentum to reach a cushioned platform. There is no time limit.

The final stage combines a Spider Climb and rope climb covering a vertical distance of 24 meters (79 feet). The first season that the Spider Climb was introduced, Sasuke All-Star Yamamoto Shingo dislocated his shoulder and fell after just a few seconds.

* * *

Marc Maron from episode 190 of the WTF Podcast, which covers former Onion writer Todd Hanson's depression and suicide attempt:

"There's an urgency to somebody who experiences darkness when they ask you a question, you know? 'I need a book' or 'I need to know where a restaurant is' or 'I need to know—Can I borrow that CD?'

"What they're really asking for is, 'I need something to throw me a line so I can try to climb up out of where I am—do you have that book? Do you have that CD? Do you have that flavor of ice cream? Do you?'"

* * *

There's an obsessive quality to a lot of my interests, a certain network of mental objects that my mind won't relinquish, even from childhood, no matter how base or silly. These persist because I believe they'll evolve with time, and that my perspective on them will change. At the heart of this, naive as it may be, is a belief that the obsession will somehow illuminate a deeper human concern. As much as people say that someday your pain will be useful to you, the pleasures will be too. Even American Gladiators.

Obstacle course game shows are simple in the pleasures they provide. That goes for the ones I loved as a kid (e.g., Double Dare, Fun House, Legends of the Hidden Temple) to later shows from adulthood (e.g., Sasuke, Most Extreme Elimination Challenge/Takeshi's Castle, Steve Austin's Broken Skull Challenge).

You get messy, you traverse monkey bars, you find a flag hidden inside a comically large Groucho Marx schnoz, you evade meatheads with jock names (e.g., Laser, Blaze, Turbo) or monikers like answers from an Intro to Classics mid-term (e.g., Gemini, Atlas, Elektra), you haul ass up a steep hill, and then you haul ass back down.

You make it through the day.

* * *

In 31 seasons of Sasuke, total victory has been achieved just five times:

• Kazuhiko Akiyama, a former crabber, soldier, and Greco-Roman wrestler (Sasuke 4)

• Makoto Nagano (Sasuke 17)

• Yuuji Urushihara, a shoe salesman, who achieved total victory twice (Sasuke 24 and Sasuke 27)

• Yusuke Morimoto, a computer science student (Sasuke 31)

* * *

A few weeks ago I was talking to my parents on the phone. They're both retirement age, but they work long hours still and seem resigned to it. My folks have always had a strong work ethic and grounded determination that I've long admired, both of which came from their childhoods on farms in a rural part of the Philippines. (I hope some of it is also genetic.) There's something to be said about being able to till the land and make it yield something useful; they both have green thumbs, my dad especially, and have used gardening and landscaping as a form of creative expression.

(My parents also have a strangely high tolerance for bullshit and an even more remarkable pain threshold. Prior to a recent trip to Europe, my mom suffered from what sounded like a herniated disc in her lower back just two hours before their flight. Even though she was in agony, they went—too late to cancel. My mom got around Denmark, a cruise ship, and parts of Russia with the assistance of a cane.)

At the end of the phone call, though I can't quite remember what prompted it, my dad said something that's stuck: "It was a good day. You can't always say 'Life is good,' but you can say 'It was a good day.'"

* * *

Marc Maron from the Todd Hanson episode of the WTF Podcast:

"Sometimes comedy or being funny is a way to channel or to understand or to get control of or to get a handle on the darkness, the pain, the anxiety—to disarm it. It's a way to navigate the swamps of self. Sometimes a good joke or a good point of view that can make you laugh a little bit can be a machete, a snake-killer, a leech-getter-off'er as you're up to your neck in swamp water or darkness, or going down a tunnel."

* * *

Makoto Nagano was eliminated in the first stage of Sasuke 31. He finished all of the early obstacles with ease, but he ran out of energy pushing more than 1000 pounds of weight in the form of three tackling dummies.

Winded, he glared at the 4.5 meter Warped Wall (Soritatsu Kabe), the penultimate obstacle, the same that kept him from completing the first stage in Sasuke 28 and Sasuke 29. He dashed ahead at full speed down the ramp and up the curling wall, falling just short of the ledge he was meant to grab. He receded like the tide. This was his one opportunity to clear the wall so there would be time enough to finish the stage.

The crowd cried out. Fellow All-Stars grimaced. They knew it was over.

Nagano hunched to regain his wind and tried again, only to fall short. And he tried again, slipping down the curling ramp of the Warped Wall as time expired. Ebb and flow.

There was quiet sympathy during Naganno's exit interview. He'd tried, at least, and despite the disappointment, he was smiling.

* * *

The camaraderie among the Sasuke competitors is palpable. Victory is an individual achievement, though it's rare, and in the face of near-certain failure, these people are in it together.

There's often a pattern to failure on Sasuke. Almost everyone who's eliminated falls into a semi-shallow pool of water below. The camera cuts from the muddy splash to the crowd groaning, to other competitors wincing. The play-by-play commentator lets out an exaggerated scream. Sometimes there's sympathetic applause, sometimes a silent commiseration.

I can't recall anyone taking pleasure in someone's else failure, and that's a major reason why a kitschy obstacle course game show can become so oddly emotional. On Sasuke, there's a pride in seeing the persistence of others.

* * *

When discussing depression, there's a tendency for writers to marry their mental state to a setting. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus mentions deserts to describe moments when life's previous founts of meaning have run dry. William Styron in Darkness Visible speaks of how his own house in Connecticut lost its autumnal loveliness and instead seemed hostile and forbidding. Dante, before embarking through heaven and hell, opens The Divine Comedy by giving spiritual crises a sense of place: "Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark / For the straightforward pathway had been lost."

These landscapes are trouble made manifest, and it's odd, though maybe fitting, that many of the obstacle course game shows I've obsessed over are shot in places that could be settings for mental distress.

Sometimes it's chilly in that forest clearing of Sasuke, requiring competitors to wear parkas between runs; the final stage of Sasuke 8 was attempted during a heavy rain. Steve Austin's Broken Skull Challenge is shot in an arid stretch of land outside of Los Angeles where temperatures crawl into the high nineties and low hundreds. There's the mud and muck in so many gags on Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, though in the Japanese version of the show, Takeshi's Castle, episodes culminate with a castle siege. There's nothing outwardly off-putting about the sets of Double Dare and American Gladiators, though both were shot at Universal Studios Florida—and let's face it: Florida is a state of constant absurdity.

* * *

Marc Maron from the Todd Hanson episode of the WTF Podcast:

"God, what is this?! A metaphor party? Holy fuck!"

* * *

Before writing this piece and processing my obsession with obstacle course game shows, I hadn't gotten much deeper than the surface—they're fun reminders of playtime and recess, they're these strange combinations of feats that you would never encounter in the natural world, and yet, especially at adult levels of competition, they are meant to test both physical fitness and general toughness. You could write them off as a lark, but any larks that last this long have to possess a personal significance, though for years this may be hidden.

Revisiting Sasuke and several other shows has been helpful during a recent protracted dark spell. Again, anything that one can grasp when the light has left the mind is useful, which is why I've started to think of my depression in terms of obstacle courses, that the landscape of my mind is a mess of Jumping Spiders, Salmon Climbs, and Shin Cliffhangers, a bizarre playground in hell. Midway through life's journey, I found myself running a Tough Mudder against my will, and Marc Summers was there—go figure.

It doesn't remedy my depression nor does it downplay the severity of my thoughts, and I don't intend this metaphor to turn someone else's struggles with depression into a type of game—each person's experience of this terrain is his or her own —but giving my misery a form has made the trying moments more manageable. And, oddly, to give my mental landscape such a shape, it's made the struggles of waking up and functioning a bit easier, and maybe even entertaining. It's strange to think of the daily grind as a series of obstacles, but it can be; one challenge after the next, taken on its own, and then again to the next one, a process of taking one's time and making progress. We're allowed to fashion our inner lives into a familiar shape for the sake of regaining perspective. That may be the card-carrying existentialist in me talking, but it's a creative act we shouldn't take for granted. What is any creative act but a way to give a place, a time of day, a color, a voice, some sort of measure, to a thought?

Toward of the end of the WTF episode, an overwhelmed Todd Hanson, given the emotional safety necessary to share his private turmoil, says that his fight with depression is an endurance test. He counts the good days, he says, which are the days he wasn't completely, totally miserable. He counts the good days.

* * *

As much as people enjoy Makoto Nagano's total victory in Sasuke 17, the reason I like him so much is that he fails with such grace. The same can be said of the other Sasuke competitors. Failure is a constant state, and it's become important for me to identify healthy models for dealing with failure. In some ways, the Sasuke mantra could be the Samuel Beckett line from Worstword Ho: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

In fact, Nagano's Sasuke 17 victory is more meaningful given the manner in which he failed Sasuke 12. He'd progressed to the final stage in a dominant display of his prowess, and made an assured ascent up the wall and rope. Near the summit, his hand slipped as he groped twice for the buzzer. Nagano was just a few inches off and 1/10 of a second too late—fractions often seem like the saddest of numbers. He vowed that night not to look at the view below until he achieved total victory.

Atop the tower after his triumph in Sasuke 17, Nagano was asked how it felt to look down.

"In 11 attempts, this is my first chance to see the view from up here," Nagano said. "It's a powerful feeling. I feel great."

One victory in 25 appearances, and the most recent ended with him stuck under a cresting wave. And yet up and down he went, and again, and again, without relenting, without consideration of the clock, persistent in the task, like Sisyphus, ultimately failing. But how he chose to finish. Such effort, and with a smile on his face, because he'd at least tried, and he would be back again, and again, and again—there are other days.

I must remember Nagano smiling.