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Commentary: A suspected suicide. Cyberbullying. Why some call this Netflix reality show ‘toxic’

Screen shot of a Hana Kimura tweet on May 22, the day she died.
Screen shot of a Hana Kimura tweet on May 22, the day she died.
(Twitter)

As fans continue to mourn the death of 22-year-old Hana Kimura, the shy but bubbly professional wrestler who appeared in the latest season of Netflix’s popular reality show “Terrace House,” one persistent theme has accompanied the wave of tributes.

“We have to get rid of this belief that you can just say anything you want to so-called famous people,” wrote friend and fellow housemate Emika Mizukoshi in an Instagram tribute to Kimura, whose death was confirmed Friday by Stardom Wrestling.

The official cause has not been determined, though troubling social media posts from Kimura in the lead-up to her death have stirred speculation that she took her own life in the face of cyberbullying. Outcry followed against the abuse often directed against the famous, and “so-called famous,” online. (Japanese distributor and Netflix’s coproducer on the series, Fuji TV, announced the cancellation of Kimura’s season on Wednesday. Filming had already stopped because of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Though such harassment finds expression in countless forms and on countless platforms, Kimura’s untimely death has drawn attention to the particular difficulties facing reality TV stars, social media influencers and others of “in-between” celebrity status. Figures like these may be exposed to far more scrutiny — or abuse — than the average person, without the protective layers of the traditional celebrity entourage.

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Each season of "Terrace House" features six housemates, three men and three women.
Each season of “Terrace House” features six housemates, three men and three women. The Japanese reality show has become a global cult hit since being acquired by Netflix in 2015.
(Fuji Television / East Entertainment / Netflix)

It’s not a phenomenon unique to “Terrace House,” the Japanese reality show that’s obtained a global cult following since being acquired by Netflix in 2015. Each season, the show follows the lives of six strangers — three men, three women — as they live together under the same roof. Deep friendships and budding romances bloom as housemates learn more about one another.

But the “Terrace House” cast — unlike that of the “Big Brother” reality franchise, for instance — often draws on those, like Kimura, who bring with them a following that predates their time on the show. Though not everyone who enters the house is already semi-famous, aspiring models, talented musicians and dedicated athletes have all been among the cast, and the series offers a tangible shot at greater fame and its material benefits.

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In fact, the series’ thorny relationship with celebrity is one of its central features: While “Terrace House” was a boon to professional snowboarder Takayuki Nakamura, whose clothing brand received international attention after he wore it on the show, basketball player Ryo Tawatari found himself in hot water when fans theorized he cut short an in-house romance to placate his admirers.

Unfortunately, the abuse that may accompany a star’s rise to prominence is often treated as par for the course — the trade you make in return for notoriety. “Terrace House” alumni began sharing their own experiences with the phenomenon after Kimura’s death. “I was often told ‘that’s the price of being on television,’ ‘if you’re going to get hurt, don’t be on it,’ ‘die,’ ‘leave,’ ” Mizukoshi wrote.

That price is a lot to ask, even of someone who’s signed away their privacy for the sake of our enjoyment.

“I’m just an athlete, not an entertainer,” Tawatari wrote in his online tribute to Kimura. For those who enter the house with even less experience in the public eye, the transition may be even more difficult.

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Try as they might to be themselves, it’s all but impossible for housemates to do so truthfully on the show — a rich irony given that “Terrace House,” with slice-of-life scenes that stand in contrast to the more obviously manufactured drama of reality series the “Real Housewives” franchise, has been hailed as one of the most “realistic” entries in the genre.

On “Terrace House” as on any unscripted program, editors sort through hours and hours of footage — most of which we never see — to select intimate moments or heated arguments that will help them build a narrative or shape our understanding of each “character” on the show — even if the problem gets ironed out in level-headed discussions by housemates afterward. And there’s little they can do once they’ve been transformed into that episode’s hero or antagonist.

“Terrace House” ups the ante by featuring running commentary from panelists — TV personalities and other established celebrities — who pick apart the housemates’ actions and offer opinions that shape the dramatic arc of the show. Sometimes playful and genuinely funny, their comments can come with a mean streak as they poke fun or scorn an unfortunate blunder.

Netflix reality TV show “Terrace House” puts pressure on housemates to be authentic. But its definition of “authenticity” leaves much to be desired.

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The exterior of "Terrace House: Opening New Doors."
A still from “Terrace House: Opening New Doors.”
(Fuji Television / East Entertainment / Netflix)

Critics of the show have pointed out the panelists possess biases of their own. When one female housemate was forced into a kiss by her male roommate last season, only one of the six panelists suggested she had looked uncomfortable — before hesitantly retracting her original observation. The rest had more to say about the female housemate’s looks, with one calling the inscrutable gaze that followed the troubling moment a display of her “womanly side.”

Indeed, some close observers have complained that “Terrace House” has become more sensational over its eight-year run: As one Redditor wrote of the latest season: “I need to watch something positive just to detox from [‘Terrace House’s’] severe toxicity.” Disagreements and love triangles seem to receive more airtime than scenes focused on personal development, and the series has also attracted scrutiny for the growing number of dates that display an alarming absence of consent.

Of course, no one can — or should — assign blame for the tragedy that fans and showrunners alike are now facing. Increasingly clear, however, is that at least some “Terrace House” participants feel their casting on the series requires a trade-off between material reward and mental well-being — an impossible calculation to expect anyone to make. Leading a life of intensely scrutinized semi-performance can exhaust the most media-savvy of stars, much less the “so-called famous.”

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As Kimura’s death and subsequent remarks by her fellow housemates suggest, even a TV series best known for being exceptionally wholesome risks becoming a pressure cooker of expectations for its stars.


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