Back down the rabbit hole again this week and into the parallel universe of Japanese televised game shows.

In Documental, Hitoshi Matsumoto, one of Japan’s most venerated comedians, hosts a challenge for 10 fellow small-screen comics, with a winner-takes-all prize of 10 million yen (US$88,000). Entry, however, costs a million yen each, lending a desperate edge to attempts at triumph.

Don’t watch this: Japanese show Caligula on Amazon Prime

The contestants gather on a set that looks like the Big Brother “house” reduced to a single room, where they must remain for six hours in pursuit of one goal: to make their rivals laugh. The last straight-faced comedian standing wins.

Matsumoto (having also contributed a million, perhaps of the production company’s money) referees this second-series Amazon Prime contest remotely on a bank of television screens. Infringements are reviewed and ruled on with the aid of action replays, and further football allusions follow with the brandishing of yellow and red cards for offenders.

Which prompts the question: when is a laugh not a laugh? The squabbling comedians pull all manner of stunts to trick their rivals – stripping almost naked, smacking heads with kitchen implements, screaming insults at each other, almost anything but telling actual jokes – inevitably contorting their faces into rictuses to avoid capitulation when they feel a chuckle coming on.

This is not the show for a philosophical discussion of what constitutes comedy, but like laughter, it is infectious and once the general insanity and lowest-common-denominator buffoonery take hold, it’s impossible not to join in – so let go, safe in the knowledge that it won’t cost you a cent.

There is a viable case to be made for the claim that the Japanese are the happiest people in the world, because they really will laugh at anything, even, as they once did, the sadistic excesses of Japan’s infamous Endurance game show.

Here, simple, unexpected humour beats cruelty. “Does anyone want to drink this?” asks Miyuki Oshima. “It’s my breast milk.”


The Rain on Netflix: Scandinavian precipitation thriller

Next time you’re having a moan about the weather, be thankful you’re not dropping dead because raindrops keep falling on your head. That’s what happens in The Rain, when a toxic-precipitation catastrophe devastates Denmark and Sweden.

It’s hardly news that long, dark winter nights of the soul make humans doomy and gloomy, but the considerable upside of severe Scandinavian sunlight deficiency is a decent line in dark, depressive dramas such as The Bridge and The Killing. And although it’s something other than a police procedural – file under “science-fiction-horror-thriller”, if necessary – The Rain is a welcome cousin.

Six classic TV series to binge-watch

The eight-part first series landed on Netflix recently, so if you’re playing catch-up, a rain-borne disease has visited apocalyptic hell on all but scattered survivors. Chief among these are a sister-brother duo, the latter being, mysteriously, an unwitting key to the survival of humankind thanks to an experimental inoculation administered pre-deluge by his scientist father.

After six years spent isolated underground in a secret forest bunker, our modern-day Hansel and Gretel, knowing the locations of other bunkers and therefore food, fall in with a threatening group of scavengers. All are on murderous edge: to stay alive, the healthy must shoot the infected on sight to avoid the largely kill-on-contact disease.

The Rain can be read as a J.G. Ballard-style myth of the near future; and if, given the rate of planetary pollution, it turns out to be prophecy, it will make you pine for those halcyon days when rain was merely acidic. The forecast for this and next year’s second series – and perhaps the globe – is cloudy skies.