‘The Contestant’ Review: Doc About Japanese Reality Star Tells a Good Story Too Superficially

The story at the center of Clair Titley’s documentary The Contestant is astonishing and infuriating, almost guaranteed to cause viewers a level of tangible discomfort, a measure of personal introspection and some amount of judgment when it comes to the world of unscripted TV and perhaps the world at large.

It’s an astonishing story and Titley tells the core of it well. If all you’re coming to The Contestant for is a recounting of a bizarre circumstance in Japanese culture from 1998, you’ll be properly aghast.

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However — and not everybody will demand this — The Contestant ought to have the advantage of 25 years of distance for a healthy dose of introspection and cultural context. At the very least, it ought to have the advantage of a decade-plus of introspection and cultural context, since it was the basis for a 2014 This American Life episode. In this respect, The Contestant is a missed opportunity. It’s a documentary about voyeurism that, in the absence of freshly delivered insight, just reintroduces and rehashes the voyeuristic impulse it’s largely condemning.

In 1998, aspiring comic Tomoaki Hamatsu, nicknamed “Nasubi” because of his long and eggplant-shaped head, left his home in Fukushima and went to Tokyo in search of fame and fortune. His parents’ only request? “Don’t get naked.”

Reality TV super-producer Toshio Tsuchiya plucked Nasubi from an open audition, took him to a small room and offered him a challenge: Stripped of all clothing and resources other than a stack of blank postcards, a pen and a rack of magazines, Nasubi was told he had to live off the prizes from magazine sweepstakes, contests driven entirely by luck. While he could technically leave the room and the challenge at any time, Nasubi’s goal was to win prizes with a total value of one million yen. There were cameras, but Nasubi wasn’t told for what purpose they were recording.

It turned out this was for a weekly segment on a popular show called Denpa Shonen, but Nasubi was so popular that producers found a way to extend this experiment, which lasted for 15 months, into a publicly available streaming webcam, back before that was a common thing. Viewers responded to Nasubi’s celebratory dance for any prizes he won, the technological trickery required to cover his genitals and the general extremes of his situation within a genre already known for its extremes. For his part, Nasubi gradually lost connection with reality, descended into depression and contemplated suicide, all in front of a national TV audience, including his disapproving mother. What was even the end objective after he reached the million yen line? I still don’t know.

Like the This American Life segment, The Contestant is based around extensive interviews with Nasubi. There’s some immediate relief at how generally stable he appears to be currently. Generally stable. Nasubi remembers his experiences in distanced generality and he’s candid about his building misery, though he’s rarely specific or directed in what many viewers might expect to be rage, but appears not to be. He has achieved some equilibrium, but when he discusses the lessons he learned from his time as an imprisoned television star, he speaks in platitudes that can’t be defended by a character arc Titley struggles to present. We get virtually no sense of Nasubi’s personality before the show, lots and lots of footage from the 15 months in containment, and nothing from the next 15 years. Then when the documentary suggests he found his true purpose, it relates exclusively to events from 2014 to 2016, but nothing afterward. Maybe you’ll buy it as a portrait. I did not.

Nasubi is still voluble and chatty compared to Tsuchiya, who is guarded, self-aggrandizing and consistent in sticking to a message he could have conveyed in 1998. If anything about what he subjected Nasubi to gives him pause or regret, he barely hints at it. Several other people associated with the show — a director, somebody’s manager, etc. — are present for interviews, but add nothing and, like Tsuchiya, no real regrets are evident.

But here’s my question: Is there a reason why anybody behind the camera should feel regret or why Nasubi should feel rage? Was he a victim? Was this experience actually cruel or does it just seem cruel when applying an outside morality? We all know that Japanese game shows cater to the audience’s desire for extremes, but was “Life in Prizes,” the segment Nasubi was part of, popular because it pushed to the extreme of extremes? A rare “expert” talking head explains that younger viewers found Nasubi’s circumstances funny and entertaining, but older audiences raised in the deprivations of World War II did not. But did the show cause a backlash or imitators? Twenty-five years later, does it look wild by modern Japanese standards or has it become quaint?

Before Big Brother and Survivor and even something as friendly as the recent Jury Duty, American audiences had nothing really to compare Nasubi’s story to. Now maybe we do, but in failing to take a step back or offer reflection outside of itself, The Contestant treats this snapshot of Japanese culture only as deviating from the Western norm. The documentary wants us to be horrified by the audiences laughing at Nasubi’s nakedness and his emaciation, treating an entire culture as “other.” Nasubi may have grown to recognize his own need for connection with a world beyond himself, but the doc’s insularity suggests that’s not a lesson its makers have fully taken to heart.

Great story, though!

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