A Japanese Reality Show’s Dark Legacy

In January 1998, aspiring comedian Tomoaki Hamatsu, who goes by the nickname Nasubi (Japanese for “eggplant,” referring to his noticeably large face), began a tenure on the Japanese reality TV program Susunu! Denpa Shōnen that would soon become the stuff of media legend. The hook of the series, which debuted on Nippon Television that month and aired until the fall of 2002, was that it would put its participants through unusual challenges. For Denpa Shōnen teki Kenshō Seikatsu (“Denpa Shōnen: A Life in Prizes”), Nasubi was deposited in a tiny apartment without furnishings or appliances, made to strip nude, and instructed not to leave until he could win a million yen’s worth of mail-in sweepstakes rewards. It was a scenario remarkable in the creativity and depth of its cruelty — and audiences devoured it, with tens of millions tuning in. The documentary The Contestant (2023), which began streaming on Hulu on May 2, revisits this odd, disquieting, and prophetic episode in pop culture.

Unbeknownst to Nasubi, the footage captured by the cameras in the apartment was not only broadcast in edited episodes on television, but also streamed live on the internet. Cutting-edge tech let the producers censor his nudity in real time with an image of a cartoon eggplant, foreshadowing the emoji’s phallic association in contemporary text-speak. Despite the setup’s resemblance to the plot of The Truman Show (1998), that film did not hit theaters until half a year after Denpa Shōnen teki Kenshō Seikatsu started airing. 

In fact, while not necessarily well-remembered outside of Japan, the series presaged innumerable media trends. Many basic tropes of reality television began here, from confessional monologues to the camera to subjects’ uncomfortable willingness to let mass audiences surveil them in every conceivable situation. The voyeuristic spectacle of Nasubi was the artistic midwife of Big Brother (2000–ongoing), Terrace House (2012–20), and more. And those are just the examples drawn from traditional media — unwitting as he may have been, Nasubi was also the first major livestreamer, and his experience demonstrated that popular audiences find 24/7 exposure oddly compelling.

Film still from The Contestant (2023)
Film still from The Contestant (2023)
Film still from The Contestant (2023)

Director Clair Titley adroitly conveys just how big this phenomenon was. When Nasubi’s daily journals were published, they became bestsellers — while he was still in the apartment. He would ultimately spend 15 months in isolation, during which time his fame only grew; the film collates TV news stories about his plight from around the world. The Contestant is most captivating when it connects Nasubi’s experience to trends in media and then tugs at those threads. For the most part, the film trusts the power of its own incredible story, as well as viewers’ capacity to connect these dots. One frustrating exception is the use of comedic actor Fred Armisen to narrate translations of voiceovers from the original broadcast. Though likely brought in to alleviate the audience of the “burden” of too many subtitles, his delivery is distractingly flat.

Nasubi is the primary talking head, but he feels strangely redundant. Often his reminiscences do little besides reinforce what’s already evident from the way he appears in the footage, and the documentary doesn’t wring more than cursory thoughts out of him. He adopts a mostly rueful but seemingly neutral outlook on the experience, even as he confesses to difficulties such as having to relearn how to interact with others afterward. The greatest waste, though, is failing to dig deeper into the antagonistic and prescient creative mind of Denpa Shōnen producer and Toshio Tsuchiya, who masterminded the ordeal. How did he and the other producers come up with all this stuff?

Titley adds a patina of retroactive judgment by including some talking heads who express vague consternation about Nasubi’s plight, but the film engages only briefly with the myriad ethical issues raised by this story — issues that continue to be incredibly relevant in the worlds of reality television, livestreaming, and documentary. Despite the strength of its tale, this effort doesn’t glean much from it aside from constructing a questionable arc of Nasubi transcending his public image through charitable work and various media stunts. By dodging the persistent, troubling thorniness of self-broadcasting as a form of entertainment, the film misses.

Film still from The Contestant (2023)
Film still from The Contestant (2023)
Film still from The Contestant (2023)

The Contestant (2023), directed by Clair Titley, is available for streaming on Hulu.

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