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The Contestant

Japanese male is confined to a room naked and without food for more than a year, in a sadistic experiment that helped to spawn reality television - doc premieres in the 32nd edition of Raindance/ also showing in the 23rd edition of Tiff Romania

It’s likely that those outside of Japan will be largely unfamiliar with the story of Tomoaki Hamatsu, nicknamed Nasubi (“Eggplant”). Auditioning for an unknown show business job, in 1998 Nasubi won a starring role in what would become the biggest television sensation of the time. Susunu! Denpa Shōnen, a Japanese reality variety show, ran a segment called A Life of Prizes, where he is locked in a room with no clothes, no food, and no connection with the outside world. He is tasked with entering competitions in magazines, living off of what he can win until he reaches One Million Yen’s worth of winnings (around $8,000). The catch is, Nasubi has no idea he was live streamed on national television 24/7. With little idea why he is doing this task, or why he is filming his daily life, Nasubi unwittingly becomes the biggest star in the country over the next 15 months, with his exploits being watched by record numbers of people, and his diaries becoming bestsellers without his awareness. Using footage from the time, Nasubi and producer Toshio Tsuchiya recall the period, its success, and the personal cost.

Many documentaries heighten the shock value of the story they are telling; however, Clair Titley’s film doesn’t have to embellish anything. Watching Nasubi lose weight, eat dog food, and be denied even the most basic of human comforts is a harrowing experience, particularly when set to canned studio laughter. While the normal human inclination would be to show concern for the subject, we see how the public grimly lap up everything to do with his plight, mocking his facial features and consuming hours of livestream footage. Just when you think there’s nothing more to do to this poor man, a new cruel twist evolves. It’s uncomfortable, but like the viewers of the time, our inherent voyeurism prevents us from looking away. At one point, as Tsuchiya silently lets off party poppers in the face of his terrified star, you get the uneasy feeling that you are watching commercialised torture. It should be said that Western shows of this nature, particularly after the advent of social media, have their own issues with ethics. However, to see the untethered origin of this format is quite extraordinary.

Given the incredible nature of the story, it’s frustrating that the documentary doesn’t go further than the events themselves. Coming a couple of years before the reality television explosion, and even before the influential film The Truman Show, there is an argument that this experiment opened the doors for one of the biggest TV trends of the 21st century. There’s even some influence on modern culture, with one interviewee suggesting that the show gave rise to the eggplant Emoji gaining it’s meaning in modern tech usage (an image of an eggplant was used to cover Nasubi’s genitals during the show). However, it never delves into the moral implications of what has happened, beyond the feelings of those interviewed.

Most frustratingly, Tsuchiya seems despicably ambivalent at the damage he has caused, only mildly addressing any culpability late in the film, but for the most part talking about what great footage he was getting. There was a chance to profile the kind of mind that would lead to reality television becoming a divisive medium, known for destroying as many lives as it elevated. The subjects make sure you are enthralled, but the perfunctory way in which the film is constructed makes it feel like there was more to see.

Nevertheless, the last half an hour gives a wonderful insight into the human spirit, as Nasubi channels his notoriety into a number of noble projects that help the people of his hometown of Fukushima following the 2011 earthquake. It’s truly remarkable to see a man who has been exploited and mocked in the worst possible way somehow translate that experience into something positive, making human connection the goal of his post-television life. He is interviewed extensively in the present day, and is disarmingly honest about the affects the experience had on him. Were it not for this insight, it would simply be a succession of shocking b-Roll.

The Contestant can’t help but be a captivating watch, that entertains and repulses in ways that few documentaries do. It’s disappointing that the analysis of what happened is left to the viewer, but with so much raw humanity on offer, that shouldn’t be an issue in the post-screening discussions.

The Contestant shows in the 32nd edition of Raindance, which takes place in London between June 19th and 28th. Also showing at Tiff Romania.

By Victoria Luxford - 10-06-2024

London-born Victoria Luxford has been a film critic and broadcaster since 2007, writing about cinema all over the world. Beginning with regional magazines and entertainment websites, she soon built up...

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