Sex, Socks, and Manufactured Storylines on Terrace House

The Shakespearean sort of scandals that rock a show like Vanderpump Rules are expected to be nonexistent on Terrace House, a franchise noted for its commitment to subtlety. Of all the chapters, Boys & Girls in the City was the most theatric: there was the saga of Uchi’s meat getting eaten, which he cried about. And there was Riko and Hayato’s lying about the depth of their relationship on-camera. (The scene where the housemates sit at a table and discuss the incident while Riko and Hayato appear shameful deserves a painting, if not a sculpture.) Even when betrayal is on display on the show, there’s a delicate, compelling gauze over it.

Terrace House is otherwise mostly about the awkward, drawn-out process of courtship, the familial and terse nature of friendship, the mundanity of conversation, and the joy of eating. It was hard to imagine the series getting any more salacious than a 18-year-old star rendezvousing with a 29-year-old man and lying about it to protect her fame and purity. Part 6 of Opening New Doors, made available on Netflix March 12, comes close. The franchise’s best chapter began with buddies-cum-lovers Tsubasa and Shion quietly becoming breakout stars, which made me follow them on Instagram. The series will next shift its location to Tokyo for 2019-2020. But first, this last stretch of nine episodes in Karuizawa peaked with back-to-back scandals. One involved friendship, socks, and a fake storyline; the other involved sex and lies.

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Spoilers ahead.

Leading up to the pivotal Episode 45, titled “Tattling,” the women in the house had trust issues. Scene: Maya and Risako in the girls’ room. They suspect that Yui, a 21-year-old virgin who projects innocence but is actually a catalyst for drama, might have deliberately placed Maya and Risako at odds with each other, thus driving a wedge between the entire trio. At the heart of the first scandal are socks.

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After weeks of unspoken tension, Maya confronted Risako about the socks Risako gifted to three of her housemates upon joining the show—Yui, Maya, and Aio. The sock saga is largely due to miscommunication via word-of-mouth. The gist is that Risako seems disingenuous. By the end of a confusing conversation in the girls’ room, Aio says the reason Risako didn’t trust Maya is, Maya said, “...because I just blab everything in front of the camera.”

What’s great is that the sock incident was something of a decoy. This situation was really about trust, and at the center of that trust was: Who’s hiding what from the cameras?

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Screenshot: Netflix

This might all seem inane, but the timeline is important to understanding the hypocrisy here. Yui, after grilling Risako about her true intentions regarding the socks, dropped a bomb about a “hand-holding incident.” If it’s not clear already, Yui is among the most polarizing figures on Terrace House, probably next to Taishi (from Aloha State) and Natsumi (from Boys & Girls in the City). Essentially, Aio and Risako—who moved into the house at the same time and went on one date—conspired to fabricate a storyline about their non-relationship. Off-camera, they apparently discussed holding hands and having Risako pretend to reject Aio. (Aio later took a liking to Yui, and the two of them started dating.)

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As much as reality TV has evolved, it’s still rare to see a conversation about cameras and storylines play out on actual television. Reality TV stars tend to talk around the fact that they are on a show; for example, Vanderpump Rules avoids acknowledging on-screen that its castmates are recognizable stars who play servers and bartenders on TV. Reality TV viewers presume a couple of things: that many scenes are scripted by producers, and that castmtes nowadays take it upon themselves to cook plots offline, often during pre-production. Hence, accusations from fans or castmates that so-and-so is only doing something “for the storyline.” I.e. The assumptions about the Tristan Thompson-Khloe Kardashian-Jordyn Woods triangle being manufactured for Keeping Up With the Kardashians; or, rumors of Kenya Moore hiring someone to be her boyfriend just to have a storyline on Real Housewives of Atlanta. On the most recent season of Love & Hip-Hop New York, Kimbella accused her friend/castmate Yandy of fostering a child for social media clout and a storyline. (The two also admitted to orchestrating a fight with someone in a previous season.)

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Claims of fake coupling also hit the U.K. reality series Love Island. The fabricated storyline is far from unique to Terrace House, but it is fun when these strategies get exposed in broad daylight, showing the lengths people go to preserve a persona, earn notoriety, or avoid criticism. (Risako at one point theorized that Yui was only being nice to the newest housemate, Masao, an incredible cook and bassist in a famous band, so she could look good on camera.)

Not even Terrace House is immune. The idea of performing a storyline contradicts the appeal of the show, which is its resistance to artifice, and yet this three-episode arc was hard not to love. The difference is getting to see them talk about faking it for TV and, in doing so, reveal some of the psychology of scripted reality. The panel then gets to dissect reality TV itself (and the psychology of its cast) in a way other shows can’t, which proves how much Terrace House is advancing the genre in its own way. Ryota Yamasato notes that Maya and Yui are upset with Risako, “because those two believe you should present yourself honestly on Terrace House.”

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It helps that the series is more self-referential than most other reality shows. Cast members actively mention Terrace House while filming, and before incoming housemates move in, the show films them announcing the news to someone(s); usually, by saying something like, “Guess what? I’m moving into Terrace House!” And the person(s) pretend as if they didn’t already know something was afoot since there happened to be cameras around to capture it.

After a series of confusing conversations, the sock situation this season appears to be somewhat resolved, or at least sorted out. But that’s only half the story. There’s a second scandal.

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Screenshot: Netflix
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Scandal 2: In the episode titled “No Longer a Virgin,” Aio confesses to Risako that he and Yui kissed and had sexual relations while at his place, which wasn’t filmed and therefore went unaired. Yui came onto the show a virgin. So this is big news. There’s a touch of irony also: the prior scene showed Yui telling Masao, “I don’t feel a desire to kiss anyone.” She told him she and Aio had yet to kiss.

After Aio confesses, a primal interaction follows: Risako wakes Yui up to confront her. Risako asks Yui how far she’s gone with Aio, a tactic to force Yui to either fess up or lie. Yui chooses the latter and says they’d only held hands. Risako tells Yui she knows everything. Yui has to admit she lied: “I guess I’m in the same boat,” Yui says. True to form, Yui also says her lie is different, because it wasn’t made up for a storyline; she and Aio were just waiting for the right time to reveal their relationship. Again, the idea is that Risako, by seeking an intriguing romance, and Yui, who wants to portray wholesomeness, fell into role-playing to appear interesting. I’ve watched every iteration of Terrace House available on Netflix, and other than Riko-Hayato, it’s never been this overtly scandalous while also being sad and good. Yamasato says in the final episode, “We may have had the most drama in the history of the show.”

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This season’s sequence of events—what the panel described as “an elaborate group drama”—reminded me of the interview Terrace House: Aloha State castmember Lauren Tsai did with Metropolis Japan in 2018 in which she broke the illusion of Terrace House as a non-scripted show. Metropolis removed her quotes from the story, so here they are via ONTD:

-Lauren explains to Metropolis Japan “It’s probably the least real reality show.” She says we weren’t filmed 24/7 and the crew would come around and hour during the day and a few hours at night. It was filmed “like a japanese drama”

-She explains “it is non scripted but at the same extremely scripted” also we only filmed a couple of hours a day but not every day. What you say is what they want us to talk about. “They don’t tell us exactly what to say. Though they know what kind of story, they want to edit in their minds so they force that content to be created.”

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There is a presumed sanctity to Terrace House that seemed to separate it from other reality shows, even though it could never be fully sacred. The housemates are still exposed to a high level of scrutiny from the outside. This is amplified, since viewers become attached to certain couples and romances (and villains); and since, while they’re still living in the house, the housemates are able to watch their own season on TV (while viewers watch them doing so)—as well as the commentators’ brutal opinions of their personalities and actions. The castmembers are then able to, if they choose, recalibrate their actions based on feedback. It’s like a live experiment. There’ve been occasions where a castmember has verbally noted public reaction on the show and taken heed.

When a series reaches such cult status as Terrace House, it’s tempting for castmembers to want to make themselves look good and their choices interesting. When so much of the editing is out of your hands, there’s a natural desire to control your image. When the mechanics of that process are revealed, reality TV gets a lot more interesting, not so much because of the scandal, but the sociology.

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Thank goodness Yui had something to say.

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