Reality television romances rarely evoke emotion other than schadenfreude, Debordian fascination, or derangement. The closest thing to a fascinating reality romance in America right now is that of Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson, whose whirlwind love and compulsive watchability combined with seamy speculation on Davidson’s cock size gives observers the impression of a TV spectacle. (Plus, they are basically Ronnie and Sammi for the super-rich.) But I can think of no time in history that reality television, until now, that a romance has been worth watching simply because of the pure, uncomplicated pleasure it provides. Until now, no reality television romance has truly made its viewers want to fall in love themselves.
The lovers are Tsubasa Sato, 24, and Shion Okamoto, 23, both featured on the lauded, deeply calming Japanese reality show Terrace House: Opening New Doors. Part 3 of the series debuted in the U.S. on July 31, but it aired in Japan months ago, so obsessive viewers stateside already knew that hockey-captain Tsubasa and fashion-model Shion ended up together via Reddit threads and extremely adorable Instagram posts. But the way they ended up together could not have been more satisfying, a ginger slow-burn into young first love that eventually bursts open like the happiest fireworks over Coney Island on a summer night, freakin’ “XO” playing in the background.* [Spoilers ahead.]
Over the first two parts of the season, at first, Shion and Tsubasa seem unlikely. He’s a tall, half-American from Tokyo prone to dressing like it—Comme des Garçons Homme, what it do—and has dreams of one day walking the runway at Paris Fashion Week. Tsubasa, on the other hand, is a sweet-faced personal trainer and tomboy who has never lived outside of Karuizawa; she’s the captain of the local ice hockey team and aspires to make nationals and, eventually, play in the Olympics. She has a large selection of Supreme, Bape, and Tommy Hilfiger Mens in her closet, perhaps not the fashionable love interest that American audiences might stereotype for a high-fashion model.
Tsubasa’s personality, though, does viewers in as quickly as it does Shion. She’s earnest, sunny, and game for anything; he’s attracted to her sparkling nature and devotion to her craft (ice hockey!), and bowled over the first time he is witness to her athleticism. (“I got chills,” he later tells her.) Tsubasa likes Shion too, a true one himself, but hasn’t really had a boyfriend before, and is emotionally cautious since her mother died—at ice hockey practice, of an aneurysm—when Tsubasa was a child.
The first two parts of Opening New Doors is an agonizing to-and-fro of will-they-or-won’t-they, particularly because Shion tells the other men in the house that he loves spending time with her but can’t envision himself in a relationship with Tsubasa. That all changes, though, under the most adorable circumstances: For Shion’s 23rd birthday, Tsubasa thoughtfully takes a bullet train to Tokyo to buy him the perfect gift—A SCARF, CAN YOU IMAGINE? SO CUTE!!!—and sets up balloons and streamers in the playroom to surprise him. Shion is so touched by the gesture that his feelings begin to change... maybe he does want to have a relationship with her after all.
Throughout this slow-paced, profoundly sweet depiction of young love as it blooms are Terrace House’s commentators, mustering only sparing dirty jokes (Yoshimi Tokui) and cynical assessments (Ryota Yamasato) while the rest of the hosts—particularly sweet icon Reina Treindl and show doyenne You—coo at the unadulterated loveliness of it. We do, too: of the three Terrace House seasons available to U.S. viewers on Netflix, no romance has been so pure and without overly dramatic shit (hello Shohei, your favorite bawler) as this one. As noted before, it has maybe never happened this way on reality television mass distributed to American audiences; again, part of Terrace House’s appeal is that it is a reality show about nothing. As You announces before every episode, there is no script, and the only provisions are vehicles and a beautiful house. The expectation that these strangers in a house will find love is introduced but very loosely so, in case they don’t (with the exception of wine-loving model and repeat cast member Seina Shimabukuro, they mostly don’t). That’s why Tsubasa and Shion’s love is such a sweet surprise; it’s a seemingly perfectly natural occurrence in a format that demands artifice, at least in the U.S.
Part 3 is their relationship’s televised denouement. (According to Instagram, they’re still together in real life.) Tsubasa’s hockey team lost its chance at nationals, and so she’s traveling to Hokkaido to see if she wants to join another team there. But it’s Valentine’s Day, and Shion decides it’s time to tell her his feelings along with a bouquet of flowers.
She blushes, like a rose in bloom. He blushes, like a man going out on a limb. Mayu cries, having decided Shion was her love at first sight despite only having lived in the Terrace House for three days. Everything looks promising, except for Mayu’s wiles, according to the hosts, who are somewhat disturbingly obsessed with Mayu’s boobs. You know what Shion doesn’t care about? Having a relationship with Mayu’s boobs. (He does, though, zoom in on them on Instagram in a scene that disturbed me greatly!!!!!!)
Tsubasa returns, and Shion approaches her again: he likes her. Will she be his girlfriend? “If it’s really me that you want,” says Tsubasa, looking at the floor, “I will be your girlfriend.” Neither of them can sit still. “Thank you for being my girlfriend,” Shion says, and then becomes so nervous he has to leave the room, immediately blabbing to the rest of the house that she agreed. Seina, who is rarely not sipping on wine and just the absolute best, proposes a toast to their love. The next day, Shion drives Tsubasa to the airport and they awkwardly kiss—just a peck! There’s no tongue in this show! It’s so sweet, though, that it’s swoon-worthy, a true love unfurling. On FaceTime, Shion tells Tsubasa he loves her. Even the most cynical and around-the-block of us put away our first instincts towards such an early declaration—that he’s just trying to smash—and allow ourselves to swoon at the scene. There’s no ulterior motive here, just true and kind emotion, the rarest of television sequences. How does this even exist?
In the episode “Tune-Up,” Tsubasa and Shion’s penultimate, their blissful reality collides with reality TV tropes. Seina, newly back from Korea and wearing giant glasses that cover her face, asks Shion how far they’ve gone. He promises to tell her if he can ask her a question, too. He calls it “the couple’s dance,” and dramatically pauses before he confirms that they have boned—in the playroom where they sleep every night, the perfect place where Shion first realized his feelings. And then: Shion asks Seina if she’s gotten work done on her face. “I’m bloated,” she says, a Real Housewives-ian response if there ever was one. But she’s gotten work done before. She’s old, she explains—an utterly REVOLTING 31—and she must beat the aging process however she can. Like that, we’re popped out of the Tsubasa and Shion cocoon, and back in familiar reality television territory—outside a fairytale and into societal values reflected back at us in spectacular fashion.
In a post-Terrace House interview published on the Japanese fan site Modelpress and translated by Reddit user PoeDancer, Tsubasa and Shion discuss the awkwardness of having their courtship chronicled on international television. But their adorable interactions remain:
modelpress: Did your views of each other change after you started dating? For example, did your dynamic change after you became a couple?
Tsubasa: Stuff like he’s got a surprisingly childish side. But he’s still an adult. He’s a really calming and friendly person. Shion: Friendly person (laughs).
Tsubasa: (laughs). He’s really aware of other people’s feelings, and that’s something I figured out after we started dating.
Shion: I had this vague thought that “she’s a good girl,” but since we’ve started dating, it makes me really happy that she’s really considerate towards me and shows me that she thinks about me. She notices small things, and does really considerate things for me.
modelpress: What kind of considerate things?
Shion: Well I’ve had a hole in my shoe for a while, and she recently bought us matching pairs of shoes. It was just a regular day and she just suddenly said “take these,” looking all embarrassed.
I BELIEVE IN THE POWER OF LOVE!
*“XO” does not play in the background on the US version of Terrace House; in fact, the Terrace House music on Netflix is notoriously cheesy, in a way that in itself is sort of gratifying—its lack of need to impress.