Shows come and go, but VS Arashi (VS 嵐) continues on, and by April it will be entering its seventh year on air. Will this three-hour special show that it still has the right stuff, or will it feel past its prime?

Directly preceding this episode, there was also a Kotatsu de Arashi 2014 special, which basically showed highlights from the complete run of VS Arashi, checking to see if the Arashi members remembered what happened. There were other activities as well, but the most important thing to check out in that special was in the last fifteen minutes, when the five Arashi members played baba-nuki (the Japanese version of the card game Old Maid). In this VS Arashi special, they play baba-nuki as well, but against guests in a series of rounds rather than against each other. I’m not going to review the Kotatsu de Arashi special, though, since it was mostly a retrospective.

The Arashi fun continued after this episode with Ohno-san’s Kagi no Kaketta Heya special. I will review that once I get my hands on some subtitles or I figure out enough of the Japanese subs in the YYeTs copy.

Okay, on with the show! As Sakurai-san explains at the start, the special has two parts – a regular VS Arashi battle between three teams and then the baba-nuki battle in the second half. I’m sort of disappointed that we didn’t get the whole Bet de Arashi thing with the baba-nuki included (especially since they’ve made a point of trying out games at the end of episodes for more than a season now), but baba-nuki is still entirely entertaining. It’s also interesting that they didn’t have a segment where they faced TOKIO or another special guest (which is somewhat traditional), but those were often brief interludes that felt out-of-place anyway. If they’re going to face TOKIO, I’d rather they do a full episode between the two groups instead of just Rolling Coin Tower or something like that.

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The guest teams were the Rakuten Golden Eagles baseball team, which won the Japan series last year, and the Rola team, which was decked out in soccer uniforms. I’m not going to list the baseball team members because while they’ll undoubtedly do well in the games, they aren’t going to provide the entertainment value here. I’ll mention them as they make contributions. The Rola team was, of course, led by Rola-san, who was accompanied by Tsuchida Teruyuki-san, the comedy duo Ogiyahagi, Bananaman’s Himura Yuki-san, Unjash’s Kojima Kazuya-san, and Kojima Yoshio-san. Altogether, this might be the most experienced VS Arashi guest team we’ve ever seen, since it mostly consists of people who are not only frequent guests on this show, but also frequent Arashi guests in general.

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The first game was Korokoro Viking, which at best is a test of teamwork. Surely the Rakuten Golden Eagles will be able to handle this without trouble, right? The orange zone was manned by pitcher Tanaka Masahiro-san and catcher Shima Motohiro-san, and since pitcher-catcher combinations have to be great at working together . . . . but I don’t mean to set the expectations too high. A couple of hundred points will be fine.

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While Tanaka-san is the leader of the team, he’s more of a quiet and nervous sort. Shima-san was much more obviously talkative.

I’m sort of rooting for the Rola team, honestly. First of all, Rola-san has had a tough time in these specials, losing in the final round repeatedly. Second, there’s actually a cash prize of a million yen (roughly $10,000), and between the three teams, I think the members of the Rola team could use that money the most. At least, I’m assuming that the members of Japan’s top baseball team will be reasonably well-off.

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That said, I think the Rola team revealed they did that huddle to show off the new design from Adidas, so maybe they’ve already scored a minor payday for this episode. Still, these guys all do a lot of TV appearances and I’ve never gotten the sense that they’re rich.

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In the end, though, this is the team with the least experience together, and the fact that both Rola-san and Himura-san had control of one side of the orange zone opposite Yahagi-san couldn’t help. Will they really be able to rack up a huge score?

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While the Rola team had one member too many, Arashi is missing one . . .

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. . . so V6’s Miyake Ken-san decides to fill in for a few games – though not the whole show. As he comes in he bows profusely to Tanaka-san from the Golden Eagles – he’s clearly a fan of the baseball team and of Tanaka-san in particular. Will he still be able to put his full effort into crushing their hopes of winning?

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Miyake-san was paired with Ninomiya-kun in the orange zone. Tough to read how this pair will do, especially after seeing how the two guest teams did.

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Miyake-san’s work wasn’t over after Korokoro Viking – he also made the climb alongside Aiba-kun in the next game – Cliff Climb. As Miyake-san himself noted, this is sort of the most dangerous combination. Each one of them has an even chance of being brilliant and rubbish, so there’s about a 25% chance of a perfect performance.

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But that ‘perfect’ is in terms of the score. When it comes to entertainment value, you can’t miss with these two. What a way to finish!

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Miyake-san tries to do the Ara-6 (Arashi + V6 = Arashi-6 or Ara-6) thing that fellow V6 member Okada-san tried to do in a recent appearance on this show. Will the Arashi guys be more amenable to it with Miyake-san?

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Let’s just ask the question straight: can the Rakuten Golden Eagle climbers get a perfect score or not? I think anything less than perfection has to be regarded as a miss for them, right? Matsui-san and Shima-san were the two heading up the rock wall.

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The Rola team have to be considered the underdogs in this one. They had Kojima Yoshio-san and out of all people Ogi-san doing the climb for them. While Kojima-san is the active sort, Ogi-san doesn’t strike me was the athletic type, though I could be wrong.

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The next game was Bound Hockey and the Arashi team was once again up first. Rola-san is so confident in her team that she’s willing to let the Arashi team off without the regular handicap (the Arashi team usually only gets one x2 puck instead of three). The baseball team agrees. Not to give away the situation for the Arashi team (which, as you can guess, was abysmal), but that was pretty much what the entire pregame conversation was about. Will this allow the Arashis to mount a triumphant comeback?

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Well, not if the other teams have anything to say about it. Yahagi-san has his game face on:

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Tanaka-san’s expression, as usual, is deceptively understated.

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So far, all of the games were the usual stuff that we get to see regularly on VS Arashi, but there’s one game that they’ve apparently decided is only good when there are at least three teams: Giant Crash.

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And they’re right about that. You see, if there’s only two teams, there are strategies about how many blocks to lower that the Arashi members eventually seemed to master. With three teams and the current way of placing the giant on stilts (in this case, baseball bats), those strategies don’t work any more.

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In short, this game is now almost entirely a game of chance rather than skill and . . . I don’t really like games like that. No way to avoid making this game like that, though, or the result would be practically a foregone conclusion.

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Miyake-san departs at this point (and when Ohno-san makes a fuss about it he pinches Ohno-san’s face in a cute moment), giving the Arashi-6 thing one more try . . .

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. . . and then the Arashi team gets their own baseball player to take the sixth spot – Uehara Koji-san from the Boston Red Sox. Tanaka-san from the Golden Eagles sure got a kick out of seeing Uehara-san emerge dramatically. Incidentally, Uehara-san has been on VS Arashi once before in 2012.

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With Uehara-san, the Arashi team faced off against the other two teams in an expanded version of Dual Curling (perhaps Tri-Curling?). Each team sent up three members for the first round, and it was Ohno-Aiba-Uehara for the Arashi team. Uehara-san declared that he especially didn’t want to lose to Tanaka-san, and it totally looked like Tanaka-san was blushing.

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For the second round, Sakurai-san, MatsuJun, and Ninomiya-kun faced off against the remaining members of each team except Kojima Yoshio-san didn’t get a chance to go up (since the Rola team had seven members).

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I have to say, it might be just because there were three teams, but Dual Curling looked like a useless mess. They just wait for as long as possible and then launch all the stones. I think the game needs some refinement now that this has become the norm – something to shake it up a bit. For instance, how about if the center 50 point zone goes up thirty seconds in (thereby preventing any stones from reaching it after that) and the thirty point zone goes up with ten seconds left? Staging it like that might be just the thing to stop this madness.

Before moving on, we had a little interlude where Matsumoto-kun played catch with Uehara-san and Tanaka-san. I’m surprised Aiba-kun wasn’t in on it. I think Uehara-san invited the Arashi guys to Boston for the baseball season opening ceremony! I doubt that they can fit it into their schedule, but you never know.

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They seem to be bent on going through all the usual games, so next up was Bank Bowling.

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Uehara-san and MatsuJun were up for Arashi. Will their little moment playing catch help them to coordinate their throws to maximize the chance for a spare (let’s not kid ourselves into thinking they can get a strike)? Uehara-san negotiated for an increase in the bonus for a spare from 50 points to 150 points. I’m shocked it was only 50 points to begin with, since just knocking the pins down would net 250.

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After their throw, they sat and waited . . .

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. . . so see if Ohno-san and Sakurai-san could complete the spare.

Do you think Kojima Kazuya-san and Rola-san have a chance to set up a spare?

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How about the pitcher-catcher combo of Shima-san and Tanaka-san?

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This was getting to feel a bit . . . long. So, I was relieved when we finally got to the final game of the main competition – Kicking Sniper. After this round, the two teams with the most points would go on to Rolling Coin Tower to decide who would win the 1 million yen prize. At this critical time, Aiba-kun, Uehara-san, and Ninomiya-kun took the kicks for Arashi. There are 870 points up for grabs, so any team has a chance.

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Uehara-san says that he’s good with soccer, but there’s one team that’s dressed for the job:

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I can’t show any screenshots of the Rolling Coin Tower round because that would reveal which two teams had moved on to that round.

I think this first part of the VS Arashi special has to be evaluated on its own merits, separate from the baba-nuki part, which has a totally different feel to it. What was most striking was how little time there was for side antics. The whole hour and a half of program time was very focused on the games, perhaps because there were more of those than usual and more teams than usual. But really, aside from some weak attempts, even the Rola team couldn’t get much humor in.

Miyake-san and Uehara-san both did a great job, though – they were definitely stand-out guests.

With that focus on the games, it’s a shame that the only one they played that we rarely see is Giant Crash. There was no other attempt to spice it up with the games we don’t see very often.

You know what it was like? It was like a normal episode of VS Arashi, only longer. And there are very few episodes of VS Arashi which I thought should have gone on for longer.

Normally, there are front-runners for Most Omoshiroi (Interesting) Arashi even early in the show, but none of the members really stood out for the first part. Will they have better results during baba-nuki?

There’s one big advantage to a card game – there is a close focus on four players at a time. Thanks to the need to bluff in this particular card game, there is also a built-in opportunity for antics (something nonexistent in the VS Arashi games except Falling Pipe, which is now played only when the planets are properly aligned).

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The downside to baba-nuki is that I can’t really say much about what happened because most of what I would like to say would spoil the fun. What I can do is mention the players in each group and how amusing it was to watch them.

In group A, we had Ashida Mana-chan, Imada Koji-san, Satomi Kotaro-san (best known from Legal High, which I’m finally watching right now), and Matsumoto Jun-kun.

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Now, it’s clearly the case that Satomi-san has the best poker face, but that means he was also the least interesting player. All the previews of this segment featured Ashida Mana-chan, and for good reason – her reactions are really fun to watch. Imada-san is making a comeback after playing in the January 3rd episode last year.

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It’s always hard to tell how MatsuJun will do, because he’s usually a calm and cool sort, but he also picks up on the mood of people around him. With Ashida-san grinning away and Imada-san being funny, he can’t quite keep a straight face.

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One of the competitors in a later group is magician Daigo-san (not to be confused with the rocker by the same name). He gives his expert opinion as someone who uses all sorts of tricks in order to read people.

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Block B featured both Ninomiya-kun and Aiba-kun (my favorite comedy duo) with Rola-san and a guy who I totally didn’t catch the name of and didn’t recognize.

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Between Aiba-kun, Rola-san, and Nino-kun, I think we’ve got all our entertainment needs covered, anyway. Watching Aiba-kun and Rola-san trying to bluff is the source of endless fun.

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The C block had Daigo-san, Sakurai-san, Kanou Eiko-san, and badminton player Shiota Reiko-san. Surely the fun here is Kanou Eiko-san and Daigo-san, who are probably on complete opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of their approach to this game.

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Daigo-san says that he’s never lost at baba-nuki. Don’t miss the look Sakurai-san gives him when he says that – I’m not going to include a screenshot of it because it has to be seen in context. Sakurai-san is totally looking to take Daigo-san down.

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Kanou Eiko-san, on the other hand, is probably just glad to be on a prime time special.

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The losers from each of the three blocks come together to play against Ohno-san in the final round to figure out who is the absolute worst at this game.

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There’s no question about it – the baba-nuki part of the show was way more fun to watch than all the games in the first half, proving that one compelling game that’s rarely played beats a dozen games that we see every week. Obviously, if they played baba-nuki every week, it’d get boring after a while, too.

And I think we have some basis to pick a Most Omoshiroi Arashi now. I’m tempted to give it to Sakurai-san just for the way he looked at Daigo-san, but really when it comes to baba-nuki, the best Arashi to watch was clearly Aiba-kun. Not only was the Aiba-Rola thing epic, but Aiba-kun also went so far as to do funny faces by crossing his eyes. Oh, and we can add the fact that he did Cliff Climb alongside Miyake-san – certainly the best game in the first half even if it wasn’t enough to get Aiba-kun the M.O.A. on its own.

All right, so we had a fairly average VS Arashi for the first hour and a half, and then a great hour of baba-nuki. How did it compare will last year?

Well, the guest team last year was slightly more impressive. There was only one guest team, and it was led by the comedy duo Tunnels (it still had Ogiyahagi, though). That meant there was more time and room for silliness. There was a special round of Dual Curling where the Arashis faced a team of actors including Koyama-kun from NEWS. The last game was Bound Hockey, not Rolling Coin Tower. Oh, and there was a brand new game in last year’s special – Popcorn Hitter.

On the other hand, the baba-nuki this year was somewhat better than last year, thanks to the contributions from Daigo-san and Kanou-san who weren’t present last time.

Anyway you look at it, this was still solid viewing, and it ended strong. I hope we don’t have to go through 2014 seeing only the usual games and nothing new, though. I still wonder what happened to Popcorn Hitter.