A man and a woman shout at you excitedly in a language you do not understand. A studio audience filled with young women claps politely as another woman emerges from a doorway filled with a cloud of dramatic smoke. Now, a man in a yellow beanie and blue smock blows a whistle and starts a clock running. A group of identically dressed children crowds around a paper robot and a giant cardboard mouse dancing on marionette strings. The studio audience erupts with applause as the "Hallelujah Chorus" plays with a disco beat.
This is either the weirdest dream you've ever had or it's Japanese television.
Richmond illustrator Sally Vitsky can tell you that it is certainly no dream, so that would have to make it "TV Champion," a bona fide television phenomenon in Japan in which contestants compete against each other in a variety of specialties from cooking to designing, from stone cutting to the fine art of balancing things.
In Vitsky's case, she recently spent 10 days in Japan participating in the program's yearly competition in the art of paper sculpture. Think the Food Network's cult-TV hit "Iron Chef" with paper.
Contestants are given a theme with which to work zoo animals, robots, confections, vehicles and are given a time limit in which to complete the piece.
Vitsky says the producers of the show wanted to bring in a competitor to try to beat the formidable Japanese champions, some of whom have been competing on the show for six or seven years. One of the champions, a friend of Vitsky's named Ajin Noda, suggested Vitsky to the show's producers. "They called me and said, 'Do you want to come to Japan?'" she recalls. "Duh!"
Vitsky says it was never about winning. (Unless you get Japanese television on your satellite dish, we're not spoiling anything by telling you she didn't win.) "If this was the paper Olympics," she says chuckling, "I was the Jamaican bobsled team."
Vitsky has done well for herself in this country with her 3-D paper illustrations for editorial clients such as Newsweek, Fortune and the Dallas Morning News, in addition to her work for corporate clients such as MCI, Blue Cross/Blue Shield Consortium and the local company Invensys. But her 15 minutes of real fame may come in a country 10,000 miles from home. "They are famous over there," Vitsky says of the "TV Champion" contestants. Noda had some actual groupies who showed up to cheer him on, Vitsky says, and she herself experienced her first star-struck fan on the plane trip to Tokyo.
While in Japan, Vitsky competed in two rounds held in Yokohama, about an hour and a half outside Tokyo. For the first round, Vitsky had eight hours to create a Mother's Day pop-up card, half of it before the competition and the other half in front of a throng of onlookers at a local mall. She says she initially toyed with "boring" ideas a bird's nest, a breakfast tray, until she finally settled on something she thought was unique: a series of Russian nesting dolls "symbolic of motherhood and generations," she explains. The first doll held an envelope in which there was a second doll holding an envelope in which there was a third doll holding an envelope, inside which there was a Mother's Day card.
Her competitors made a queen bee, a pop-up bouquet of carnations, and a family saying "Thank you" and holding pop-up cards.
The judges were 20 mothers in their 30s and 40s from Japan, other parts of Asia, Africa, Europe and the United States. Vitsky says one woman, who introduced herself as Olga Svetlana, was clearly delighted by her piece. "Matryoshka!" she exclaimed when she saw the Russian nesting dolls.
While Vitsky and the others turned their backs, the judges voted by placing a carnation in vases in front of each of the pieces.
"When I turned around there was one carnation in my vase!" Vitsky says with a laugh. Yep, you guessed it. Olga Svetlana. Vitsky joked to the show's producer, "Thank you so much for calling the Russian embassy!"
Vitsky fared better in the second round, held at the Children's Science Museum. Contestants were given 20 hours to create a piece inspired by the idea of time travel. Vitsky's piece was a Renaissance-era Palladian structure, with an atrium, Corinthian columns and a fountain in the middle. Hanging on a wall was a self portrait. Around the back of the piece was a ladder on which Paper Sally, in period dress, was peering through to the 16th century.
The judges included 20 foreigners, each with one vote, and five professionals (each with five votes) including a film director and science fiction writer.
"I was scared I was going to turn around and it was going to be, 'Sally has zippo!'" But this time, she'd gotten 10 points and what made it sweeter for Vitsky was that they had come from the professionals.
She suspects her work may have been too subtle, not obvious enough. She says there are simply different cultural expectations for illustration and advertising and other visuals in Japan than in the United States. "There, everything is so cute. ... I got a little too cerebral about it," she says. "It's what I've been trained to do."
"Here we are pushed to step outside the box in advertising," Vitsky says. Not so in Japan. Everywhere you look in Tokyo, she says, images are "delightful, very lighthearted, adorable" on everything from advertisements to street signs. Still, the country seems to take all things visual very seriously.
"They are very serious about their paper art and art in general," Vitsky says. "They respect their artists over there. Their food is artful. It's the culture, it's very important to them that things have a visual aesthetic."
Vitsky's appearance on "TV Champion" runs sometime next month. (Don't bother checking local listings.) The star treatment continued late last week when a film crew came from Japan to Vitsky's home in the near West End to film her making dinner for her husband and two sons.
Is the door open for a return visit and another shot at the "TV Champions"? Vitsky says she'd go back in a heartbeat and this time, she says with a raised eyebrow, "I'd probably go back thinking that perhaps I could