Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Guilty Pleasure: “Zuiikin English”

I don’t know who exercises to those morning TV shows anymore. In the 80s they had those Jane Fonda videos. Local stations still put on those programs where you do simple things like do 45-minute runs to warm up, then a bunch of exercises. Fair enough. But who would have had the gumption to combine exercise with other forms of daily exercises, as in language exercises? The good folks at Fuji Television in Japan, that’s who.

But let us heed the words of Tina Fey, who gave us this bit of wisdom on the dangers of combining two good things at once. In her phenomenal autobiography Bossypants, she said:

“It’s the same reason I don’t get Hooters. Why do we need to enjoy chicken wings and boobies at the same time? Yes, they are a natural and beautiful part of the human experience. And so are boobies. But why at the same time?”

Created twenty years ago in 1992, Zuiikin English debuted to absolutely no fanfare on early morning TV. The purpose of the show was simple and twofold: get your morning exercise in, and learn English at the same time. The program consisted of three women in skimpy exercise wear performing stretching activities while reciting English sentences that have nothing to do with the activity in progress. In an effort to combine two activities, the purpose of both seems to have been defeated because the phrases are not often used in daily conversation, and no one explains how to perform the exercises. This is the danger of multi-tasking in TV: you can’t go about it half-assed, because you won’t succeed at it.

To give you an idea of the rather useless sentences that the women leading the exercises chant in a happy monotone (if such a thing exists), here are a few choice clips:

“I have a bad case of diarrhea.”

“How dare you say such a thing to me!”/ “I can’t stand the sight of you!”

“Take anything you want!” / “Spare me my life!”

“Lovely golf weather today!”

More clips after the jump.

“The climax scene really got to me.”

And several more for you to discover:

All of the lines are delivered in the exact same flat tone, with happy smiling faces while performing in-place exercises, would no doubt have left the viewer breathless and confused from trying to remember all the steps and simultaneously reciting the English phrases. Believe me, I attempted to do this in my home and ended up spinning in place in confusion, to the delight and more likely bafflement of my neighbours. The effect is exasperatingly comic, and leads one to put out one’s open palms on both sides, squint, drop the jaw and say “what the ****????” Think of it this way: would you exclaim “how dare you say such a thing to me!” in a clipped monotone? I tried to chant it out the way the Zuiikin English girls do in the video and had to stop after a few seconds because I realized that I was not breathing while reciting it the way they do and attempting to exercise at the same time.

And yet there is absurd beauty in this form of unintentional comic art. The absolute lack of irony and the knowledge that somehow, somewhere this was considered a good idea at some point in recorded history makes this a form of weird absurdist theatre that briefly invaded Japanese television. Given that Zuiikin English often aired in the wee small early hours of the morning, before the news even got started, meant that the program went unnoticed and was likely lost in the shuffle of early-morning commuting.

That being said, this is the sort of misbegotten venture that is somehow discovered on YouTube and spawns a minor international cult following. The clips were once shown on Jay Leno in a compilation of the world’s worst exercise videos. Parody clips were made in response to these clips, mostly as loving homage and bar games.

For awhile, Fuji TV issued cease-and-desist orders to remove the clips, but they simply found their way back to the Internet once they discovered that this was the sort of minor phenomenon / best-kept secret that just won’t die. When the alien militia take over the Earth at the end of recorded human history, these YouTube clips will likely survive and provide hours of endless entertainment and English-language lessons once humanity becomes extinct and the next race takes over.

For more fun and worship of this little-known best-kept-secret phenomenon, head over to the unofficial Facebook fan group.