It’s kind of remarkable how easily normalized the horrors of reality TV became in the space of only two decades. What once seemed so radical and even dangerous, with the advent of shows like Big Brother, quickly evolved into the entertainment status quo, but not before the platform evolved into a gladiatorial arena of misogyny, racism, and unfettered human cruelty. We’re barely fazed by things like Naked and Afraid, almost bored by rich women tearing each other’s hair extensions out. However low the bar falls, there will be an executive finding a way to get a camera in there.
The origins of what amounts to a human version of bear baiting are truly centuries old, but the formula as we know it has its roots in a Japanese show called Denpa Shonen, which delighted in making normal people do ridiculous things with little regard for health, safety, or basic decorum. The show blew up in popularity in 1998, when reality TV super-producer Toshio Tsuchiya came up with an idea. Can one person survive solely from the prizes they win in competitions tucked in the backs of local magazines? The guinea pig for this experiment was aspiring comic Tomoaki Hamatsu, nicknamed Nasubi (the Japanese word for eggplant) because of his long face. Plucked from an open audition, Nasubi was taken to a small room, told to take off all his clothes, and get on with winning prizes. A camera recorded his daily progress, but what Nasubi didn’t know was that the show was being broadcast weekly. For 15 months, Nasubi went through hell while Japan laughed along.
Pretty terrifying, right? Documentarian Claire Tilley’s The Contestant offers an interesting, if surface level, insight into this show and what it was like for Nasubi to become the most famous person in Japan without his knowledge. An amiable and eager-to-please man, Nasubi had no idea what he was signing up for (indeed, he didn’t actually sign anything to agree to the show.) Nasubi is interviewed here, seeming candid and generally stable, if obviously still affected by his experiences. He talks openly about how miserable the show made him and how often he thought of suicide. Excerpts from the diaries he kept during those 15 months are shown, not only because of the insight they offer but because that was part of the show, and the producers then packaged them as books which became bestsellers. The Japanese voiceovers of Denpa Shonen are dubbed into English by Fred Armisen, who seems a tad too languid compared to the sugar-high theatrics of the original commentators. Contrasted against a man clearly falling into despair, it makes for anxiety-inducing viewing. Nasubi’s strained, performative smiles into the camera as the months pass evoke the first act of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, right down to the wild hair (I have to assume Park saw this show because the parallels are uncanny.)
Contrasted against Nasubi himself is Tsuchiya, a stoic producer who describes his torturous process with the calmness of a man reading the phone book. His obvious lack of regret for how he manipulated a guileless man into public humiliation is galling, as are the non-plussed comments from others associated with the show. When Tsuchiya describes how they pulled off the big finale, his satisfaction is evident. Nasubi’s own reaction is not quite so conclusive.
As a summary of this unique moment in cultural history, The Contestant is interesting and satisfying. Yet you can’t help but feel like something is missing. Over two decades have passed since Nasubi’s experience but we get so little about the show’s wider impact and what it inspired. Sure, we’re told that it predates The Truman Show and Big Brother, and may very well have inspired the latter, but it stops there. A BBC journalist who was stationed in Tokyo at the time explains that younger viewers found Nasubi’s circumstances highly entertaining, but older people who were alive during the deprivations and pain of the Second World War did not. Why not give us more information on that? A news report offers one skeptical local who finds the show cruel but little else. We have no sense of how Denpa Shonen influenced Japanese entertainment or the discourse it inspired. By portraying the nation as a wholly eager audience to Nasubi, it can’t help but feel reductive.
It’s clear that Nasubi was traumatized by 15 months of near-total solitary confinement, even before the twist was revealed, but we get little sense of him as a person before the show and what motivated him to stay. He admits that the door was always open so he could have walked out if he chose to. When the producers pushed him into doing it all over again in South Korea, he agrees to it, even though he says he wanted out. A more detailed sense of his mental anguish would have helped to fill in some of these gaps. The third act, after Nasubi completes the challenge, would have been a good time to dive into this. Instead, we get a little bit about how he tried to cope with his loneliness by helping people in his home city of Fukushima and climbing Mount Everest, but not much else. Nasubi lost his faith in humanity then found it again, but the speed with which this neat conclusion comes to feels unfinished. Still, you cannot help but be thrilled that he managed to move on (and do so without killing Tsuchiya with his bare hands.)
The central hook of The Contestant, however, is so gripping that I’m sure most viewers won’t be able to tear their eyes from it. Much like Denpa Shonen was in its time, watching Nasubi do everything in his power to survive is horrifying yet fascinating. This is pure sadism, so undiluted and proud of its nature that it feels like a curse to even engage with it. But humans have never been very good at stopping themselves from staring directly into the sun.
The Contestant had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking US distribution.