This is a section of the first ever Sasuke competition in 1997, which was also the only time it was held indoors. Sasuke was rebranded as Ninja Warrior for overseas consumption. The parent production company, Monster9, went into bankruptcy in 2011 and the future of Sasuke was in doubt for a while. The rights were eventually picked up by the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) which had broadcast the competitions, and they relaunched the 28th competition as Sasuke Rising. The most recent 29th competition was held this past June. If TBS continues to produce the show on its (more or less) regular schedule, we might be able to watch the 30th competition during the New Years holidays.
The apparatus has gotten a bit more elaborate since then, but the design aesthetic has remained the same: sadistic Nintendo game-level designers, influenced by American Gladiators, make a real-life obstacle course. There are four levels, each increasingly harder. Just like in Super Mario Brothers, if you touch the water, you’re out.
To add to the difficulty, there’s a timer for the first, second, and fourth stages. There’s also an unspoken tradition that the course designers will make it harder every competition, especially if too many people make it past one of the stages. You never know before the competition exactly what obstacles you’ll be facing.
The First Stage usually has 85–90% attrition. There have been competitions where only a couple of people out of the starting 100 make it past the First Stage, and ones where no one at all makes it past the Second Stage. The Third Stage is untimed, but always features obstacles requiring great upper body and grip strength. Very few competitors who make it to the Third Stage have passed it even once. Those who have been successful multiple times can be counted on the fingers of one hand .
The Fourth Stage is always a grueling climb to the top of a tower. The first set of obstacles changes, but this stage always finishes with a rope climb of some length. The time limit has varied between 30 and 45 seconds, usually requiring the competitor to cover about 1 m or more of vertical distance per second. Total Victory (完全制覇) has been achieved only four times  to date.
While upper body strength is extremely important in later stages, speed, explosiveness, strength-endurance, and a certain amount of skill are also necessary to make it through even the First Stage obstacles. Many competitors get stuck on or fall off the log grip, the half-pipe attack, the warped wall, and the jump hang in the First Stage. Aside from catastrophic failures of strength or technique on the log grip, most failing competitors in the First Stage lack either the explosive power to clear something like the warped wall, or don’t have the combination of speed and endurance necessary to clear all the obstacles quickly enough to meet the time limit — usually under 2 minutes.
Just making it past the First Stage demonstrates that you’re a fairly well-rounded athlete. Achieving total victory shows that you’re an incredible one.
With one left over. Nagano Makoto, Urushihara Yûji, Ômori Akira, and Yamamoto Shingo are the only four competitors in the 16 year history of the competition to complete the Third Stage more than once. ↩