The second season of Love Is Blind, Netflix’s reality show “experiment” where men and women get engaged before seeing each other in-person, kind of sucked. While the first season successfully captured the holy trinity of good reality TV—memorable characters you love (or love to hate), dramatic tension, and genuine surprises—the two years between seasons didn’t do the sophomore effort much good. The couples came across as frustratingly mismatched, their contrived engagements blatantly tenuous. With each couple seemingly fated to break up by the end, the stakes felt lower than ever; these relationships were just fleeting, monthlong endurance tests of self-worth. And if they somehow proved successful, as only two engagements did this season, it wasn’t because they’d resolved their tensions, but because they hadn’t yet come to their breaking point.
Dissatisfied with—and worse, bored by– the new season, I looked to meet my Love Is Blind needs with something else: more Love Is Blind. Not the American version we all first fell for in the pre-pandemic days of 2020, however, but its Japanese sister series. Love Is Blind: Japan premiered on Netflix earlier this month, just days before Season 2 of the primary show, and aired on a similar schedule: Two batches of episodes split over two weeks, followed by this week’s big wedding finale. Despite airing in tandem with OG LIB, Japan hasn’t gotten the same level of attention; Netflix wasn’t pushing me or anyone else I know toward watching Japan after blowing through the available Season 2 episodes, instead promoting its other, saucier spin-off, Love Is Blind: Brazil. But I found it, and I watched it, and I have now discovered not only my favorite iteration of LIB, but one of my favorite reality shows ever.
Love Is Blind: Japan is more of a slow burn than its counterparts, but it’s not lacking for those core reality tenets. While it spends nearly half the show on the men and women getting to know each other on opposite sides of a wall, Japan manages to build individual characters and relationships to care about. These scenes are the ones that the American version tries to dispose of as quickly as possible, in order to speed toward the physical romance and inevitable fighting. Japan, on the other hand, spends that time showing us men and women not just falling for each other, but also bonding with the other contestants that they actually get to hang out with face-to-face in the meanwhile. All the men hang out together, kept separate from the women until they get engaged, and vice versa. By the time each man and woman has paired off and moved in together, they have also formed meaningful friendships that continue on throughout the rest of the show. These are some of the only people in the world who know what it’s like to fall in love with someone through a wall—of course they’re going to use each other as sounding boards when they start to hit roadblocks.
When the roadblocks do come, they’re big ones. The cast’s age range is much greater than that of the American version, with members as young as 23 and as old as 56, and the older men and women have a stronger desire to find someone to settle down with so that they can embark upon the next phase of their lives. Getting engaged on this show isn’t a contrivance that they can simply break off at the altar—it’s an emotional investment as much as it is one of time. 23-year-old Yudai tells 32-year-old Nana that he’s cool with having kids ASAP before they meet in person; not long after they do, he confesses that he only said that because that’s what she wanted to hear. While the average American reality show would watch them continue their doomed relationship until they tearfully break up at their wedding in front of all their loved ones, Japan doesn’t force its contestants to waste that time. Nana quickly ditches Yudai, determined to find a man who’s ready to settle down with her.
But these break-ups don’t happen in heated moments of curse-filled screaming. When Minami (27) and Mori (37) get drinks with friends from the cast, they confess that they’ve been having long, heartfelt talks each night about whether their relationship is working. We then see them sit at their dining table as they calmly discuss their differences, thanking each other for taking the time to listen and understand. When they break up, its tearful, but it also arrives without animosity. They tried to make it work, realized they weren’t able to, and respectfully broke up before wasting any more of each other’s time.
Perhaps this sounds boring, because we’re so used to watching romances blow up spectacularly in shows like The Bachelor. But the premise here is still beautiful people getting engaged, moving in together, and deciding to get married or not within a three-week span. (There are some real cuties on this show, in case you’re curious; one of the women is literally a former Miss Japan.) The difference is that Japan respects its cast as much as it does its audience, portraying a more realistic and mature take on relationships that is at once familiar and utterly not. Meeting your partner’s parents for the first time is always daunting, and Japan doesn’t dance around that; figuring out how to live with your partner is a push-and-pull that can take years. Shuntaro, the oldest cast member at 56, is afraid to meet 30-year-old Ayano’s parents, because he is literally their age. These are actual dramas that people face in relationships, and it’s no less compelling to watch than when an American Love Is Blinder tries to steal another’s fiancé.
Japan recalls another fantastic Japanese Netflix show: Terrace House, which ended due to tragic circumstances in 2020. That show similarly grouped goal-oriented young people together, albeit sticking them in the same house (a la The Real World) and watching them learn to make peace with it. Of course, they all were dating each other by the end, but the show’s own focus remained on each individual cast member pursuing their careers or personal desires. If you moved into the Terrace House and didn’t have at least a sense of your life’s purpose ready to share, you better believe your new housemates would judge you for it. It was a refreshing focus for the reality show genre, its cancellation a big hole that Love Is Blind: Japan now satisfyingly fills.
I haven’t watched the finale of Japan yet, but unlike Love Is Blind Season 2’s wedding day, where I hoped literally none of the couples would stay together, I’m rooting for the Japanese couples that have chosen to stick it out to make it work. After nine hours of watching them asking tough questions of each other, admitting their own mistakes, and allowing themselves to be vulnerable, I care about them as people—not just TV characters.