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The tragic lie behind the beautiful dream of Terrace House

The hit Japanese Netflix series won praise for its everyday authenticity. Then Hana Kimura’s death revealed a more complex truth.

A darkened Terrace House.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

In many ways, Terrace House, the hit Japanese reality show where 20-something strangers move into a house together (à la The Real World), is a utopian dream of what reality TV could be at its best. Since it began in 2012, the show has forgone the typical traits that drag down the genre — there are no media restrictions, contrived twists, interpersonal competitions, regrettable hookups, or $1 million prizes.

Instead, the denizens of the titular swanky-but-not-too-swanky house simply share a living space, while remaining able to come and go as they please, continue their usual routines, and exit the house and show altogether whenever they want. To its obsessed international fan base, the appeal of Terrace House lies in its naturalistic ambiance and how relatable — even soothing — these normal, unassuming people are as they just live their lives.

But the illusion that Terrace House is a peaceful retreat from the typically sordid drama of other reality TV shattered last month, with the apparent suicide of Terrace House resident Hana Kimura. Kimura, a pro wrestler, had endured constant harassment on social media since joining the latest season of the show in fall 2019, and that harassment intensified following a recently aired episode, in which she argued with another housemate.

Kimura’s death brought swift reactions: Members of the Japanese legislature vowed to enact cyberbullying laws in response, while the producers of Terrace House quickly canceled the rest of the 2019-’20 season. The show had already been on hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so producers chose not to air the rest of what had been filmed so far. It’s unclear whether the show will produce new seasons going forward.

What is clear is that Terrace House’s particular brand of storytelling might not be sustainable in a world where social media is increasingly toxic. But to understand why, we have to understand how Terrace House experiments with the reality TV format — and where it all went wrong.

Terrace House is a show where nothing happens. It’s a huge hit.

This soft lighting, ordered symmetry, and gentle emotionality are all Terrace House specialties.

Terrace House started in 2012 in Japan as a single series, with the subhead Terrace House: Boys x Girls Next Door. The show immediately won praise in Japan for its authenticity and naturalism, and when it was exported internationally it won further praise as a window into modern Japanese youth culture. Boys x Girls Next Door was so popular, it ballooned into a total of eight seasons aired between 2012 and 2014, along with a movie, Closing Doors (2015).

In 2015, Netflix stepped in to produce four more sub-series: Terrace House: Boys & Girls in the City; Terrace House: Aloha State (in which the show tried relocating to Hawaii); Terrace House: Opening New Doors; and the most recent series, Terrace House: Tokyo 2019–2020. With each subsequent series, the show has only expanded its international popularity.

But the show’s appeal isn’t exactly easy to explain. That’s because very frequently, nothing “happens” on the show — at least not in the usual sense of reality show drama. It has none of the genre’s melodramatic plot twists, suspenseful love triangles, or constant emotional upheavals. In fact, the New York Times in 2017 called it “staggeringly banal.”

The setup of Terrace House is, indeed, deceptively simple. The show provides participants with a swanky house, which comes with a titular terrace, and two nice cars to share between them. The residents — there are always six of them, three women and three men, all initially strangers — go about their lives, sharing meals, going shopping together, hanging out, interacting, and often falling for one another as the weeks progress. They’re constantly filmed by cameras, placed strategically (and with a meticulous eye for scenic composition) around the entire house.

Cutting throughout each episode, a set of camera-ready panelists watch the edited footage of the housemates — the same footage we’re seeing — and deliver sparkling, snarky commentary on the miniature dramas playing out in the house each week. The panelists mediate the viewer’s reaction and experience for us as we watch them watching the housemates — who, in turn, watch and react to themselves on TV when new episodes air, along with the rest of the world.

We then watch the panelists watch the housemates watch themselves on the next episode, in an endless refractory cycle.

That’s it. That’s all that happens.

Except that’s just the start.

Terrace House combines a naturalistic, even literary aesthetic with layered meta-commentary on the reality TV genre — and on itself

Terrace House’s focus on the mundane aspects of life is, somehow, immediately addictive. The Times reviewer, Andrew Ridker, called it “hypnotically boring” right before saying he’d inhaled 46 episodes in a month. One of my favorite reactions to Terrace House consists of a baffled YouTuber, Derek Fults, rattling off things he loves/hates about the show and then babbling, “I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do anymore!” — which is exactly how a true TV addiction can hit you, scrambling your brain and leaving you unable to concentrate on anything else.

A huge aspect of the show’s appeal seems to be a supply of wholesome authenticity — or at least a successful simulation of it. On camera, the show’s “characters” are almost unfailingly nice and caring, even when they’re arguing or making each other cry. Writing for Polygon, Justin McElroy praised Terrace House for “letting actual humans be delightfully, heartbreakingly human.” Where other reality shows benefit from their emotional highs and lows, here, as McElroy notes, it’s “the lack of obvious stakes” that make the housemates’ minor tensions “infinitely more compelling and relatable.”

The show’s lack of high stakes can make viewers feel the way Derek the YouTuber did — intensely invested in these small conflicts. In one story arc from Boys and Girls in the City, colloquially referred to as “The Meat Incident,” a woman cooks up her boyfriend’s $200-a-pound steak without asking him, and doesn’t leave him any. It’s the kind of (literally) juicy scenario that would shoot to the top of Reddit’s Am I the Asshole? — only it plays out over two relatively quiet episodes of the show through a series of calm exchanges and frustrated expressions, and what starts out as “just meat” becomes a stand-in for larger underlying tensions and conflicts in the pair’s still-new relationship.

The show does this type of micro/macro exchange again and again — like, for example, when one of its residents tries to ask another one out only for her to continually redirect his attempt to invite her on a date into taking a trip to Costco instead. “Costco” is both a hilarious euphemism for her lack of interest and a weighty representation of his rejection — and it somehow gets both funnier and sadder as the scene is drawn out:

Many viewers have compared the series to the casual naturalism of a YouTube vlog, or even a “Let’s Play” video game stream — but as I watched Terrace House for the first time, I kept being reminded of two iconic arthouse films: Jeanne Dielman, Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film about a slowly unraveling single mom, and Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre (1981), in which Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory exchange conversation ranging from the menial to the profound over the course of an evening.

Unlike Terrace House, which claims to be entirely unscripted, both of these films are scripted — but what all three have in common is that they’re all drenched in the self-aware artifice of pretending not to be staged. Both Jeanne Dielman and Andre approximate the feel of improvisation; the former has long sequences filmed in real time while the latter is essentially an entire movie composed of a single scene. Like Terrace House, both films use their cinematic techniques to resist your expectations for how they should be playing out, forcing the viewer to surrender and submit to their internal logic. As Ridker put it: “I stopped expecting shocking twists, or revelations, or other rewards for my attention. I started living on ‘Terrace House’ time.”

Terrace House also draws on a Japanese cinematic aesthetic. Its highly symmetrical, carefully framed scenes especially invite comparisons to the films of cinema master Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu is especially known for creating scenes of deliberately staged naturalism, which gain a sense of fraught tension from the viewer’s encroaching awareness that it is staged. Our awareness of that falseness bleeds into the story themes Ozu likes to explore — it means something to the narrative itself.

A poignant date from Terrace House: Boys & Girls in the City
A poignant tableau from Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953)

The artifice of Terrace House similarly plays a huge part in its narrative, even though the show wants you to believe it’s all real. For instance, the “unscripted” show is reportedly highly staged and carefully edited in the way of all other reality shows, with some of the unfolding romantic relationships between residents being called into question as well. And while the show invites us into what’s supposed to be the residents’ day-to-day lives, that invitation involves a film crew showing up to the house once or twice daily, and comes with the requirement that the residents watch every episode of their own lives as they’ve been edited for television.

The show, then, is a perpetual commentary on what it means to be a public figure living an “authentic” life in the intensely private space of the Terrace House, nonetheless aware at all times that you’re being filmed. As the house’s residents watch the show on TV, they frequently cringe at themselves and adjust their behavior week after week, trying to recalibrate their expectations of themselves and each other, according to the edits onscreen and the social media reactions of the show’s viewers. Where other reality TV shows normally sequester their stars, Terrace House crafts dramatic narratives for its seasons by doing just the opposite. It allows residents to interact with the world as the world reacts each week to the show.

This meta-layering creates what Ridker called “genuine literary excellence.” But it also may have created a parasocial illusion of intimacy that was always destined to blow up — though not in a way anyone could have predicted, staged, or scripted.

Hana Kimura got upset on the latest season of Terrace House. The argument turned the show’s entire premise on its head.

Hana Kimura in the Women’s Pro-Wrestling Stardom “Cinderella Tournament” on March 24, 2020, in Tokyo.
Masashi Hara/Getty Images

On March 31, an episode of Terrace House aired in Japan, in which cast member and resident Hana Kimura got mad at a fellow housemate for accidentally washing her expensive wrestling costumes, worth several thousand dollars and of great sentimental value to her. As with “the meat incident,” her frustration was not just about the monetary damages, although Kimura did argue that the housemate relied too heavily on others for money he had no intention of paying back. But the greater subtext of the conversation is that Kimura feels her identity as a professional wrestler isn’t being taken seriously or respected.

If Kimura had been able to get over her anger without the added pressure of a media spotlight, we probably wouldn’t be talking about this momentary blow-up. But Kimura, visibly upset and unwilling to be polite about it, rejected both her housemates’ attempts to placate her as well as many of the unspoken conventions of Terrace House itself. On a show that unfailingly frames its participants as wholesome, unassuming, and low-key, Kimura got loud and angry, swearing, and demanding. In the scene of her breakdown alone, Kimura thoroughly punctured the show’s primary conceit — that it runs on the unforced, totally natural relatability of its cast.

It’s perhaps significant that the argument that garnered Kimura so much backlash was over the destruction of her wrestling costume, the chief mediator between her authentic real self and her public persona. With the costumes out of service, the viewing public saw Kimura’s unbridled anger for the first time — and in response, Kimura received a deluge of harassment.

And this is, of course, where Terrace House breaks with its arthouse cinema aesthetic and slow reflections on the layers of meaning in a trip to the supermarket. Because Terrace House really is a reality show, with reportedly staged drama, a team of editors, and a global viewing audience of fans who obsess over each small conflict.

In this artificial context, one of the show’s only requirements — that its house residents watch themselves on camera and interact with the edited version of themselves being distributed for public consumption — became a horrible punishment for Kimura. On May 23, Kimura died at age 22. “Every day, I receive nearly 100 honest opinions and I cannot deny that I get hurt,” she reportedly tweeted soon before her death.

Following Kimura’s death, other current castmates and former Terrace House cast members posted on social media, echoing her feelings about the harassment they’re subjected to. “Honestly speaking, I receive lots of slander every day,” former castmate Ryo Tawatari wrote on Instagram. “Other members are in agony too.”

“We have to end this trend where you can say anything to so-called famous people,” wrote castmate Emika Mizukoshi, also on Instagram.

But at this point, ending such a trend would require ending the internet altogether — and this, perhaps, was the primary Terrace House illusion shattered by Kimura’s death: The conceit that none of the show’s stories were taking place in the real world, but rather an alternate version where everyone was inherently kind, and where the internet, as much as it intrudes into the lives shown onscreen, is a neutral presence. Instead, the brutal truth is that social media can encourage people to become their worst selves. Ultimately, that ugly aspect of reality intruded into the show’s utopian aesthetic in a way it couldn’t control or corral.

There’s no official word on whether the show will return, but it seems unlikely that it can after this high-profile, very public death — at least not in quite the same way. It wasn’t really Kimura’s death that may have brought a final end to Terrace House after so much success. It was, rather, the conceit of Terrace House itself — a pipe dream of reality that was never going to last.