‘The Contestant,’ A Look Into the Origins Of Japanese Reality TV

‘The Contestant,’ A Look Into the Origins Of Japanese Reality TV

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Sensationalism is the bread and butter of today’s media and entertainment industry. The competition for higher sales in the field of communications can be traced back to the circulation war between Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal during the mid-1890s. This gave wave to what was known as yellow journalism. Later on, with the advent of television, the competition for high ratings was epitomised by the fictional story that won Paddy Chayefsky the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay: the 1976 film Network. Meanwhile, around the same period a true on-air death occurred in the United States, when anchor-woman Christine Chubbuck took a revolver and shot herself while reading the news on live television. During the late 20th century certain programmes became the precursors of the webcam phenomenon we are experiencing today.

If this ruthless approach towards infotainment is thought to be a characteristic of the Western world, there’s a story from Japan that proves how people in show business are ready to exploit any human story to increase viewership. Just before The Truman Show came out, a real-life Orwellian ordeal captured on camera a man for a year and three months. This marked one of the world’s first reality TV shows in Japan. Filmmaker Clair Titley has chronicled this circumstance in her documentary The Contestant.

©Courtesy of Hulu

In 1998, 22-year-old Tomoaki Hamatsu, who was nicknamed Nasubi — meaning aubergine  for the elongated shape of his face — was randomly chosen from a small group of young people auditioning for a new project. The Mephistophelian producer had come up with Susunu! Denpa Shōnen, in which a chosen candidate was challenged to stay alone, unclothed, in an apartment surviving only on prizes won in sweepstakes until he reached a million yen in prizes. Thus, Nasubi, was forced to live in extreme conditions for 15 months, first in an apartment in Japan and later in South Korea. During the show, his diaries became a best seller in Japan, and the TV show broke all records with 17 million viewers each Sunday night.

The atrocity of this endurance test — besides seeing the conditions imposed upon this naïve young man — lays in how the Stockholm Syndrome provoked in Nasubi the impulse to stay rather than to flee. The door to the apartment wasn’t locked, yet he lost the will to escape and felt that the safest thing for him was to stay put and please the production team.

The perverse mentality of entertainment reshaped the show as a comedic segment titled “A Life in Prizes” (Kenshō Seikatsu), where we can find the first use of emojis, used to preserve the modesty of Nasubi’s genitalia. The image used is that of an eggplant, which nowadays in the dictionary of emojis is synonymous with penis. That is where it all began. Besides the whimsical graphics, the editing of each episode moulded into laughable moments Nasubi’s struggles, in which he would exult when food would arrive to the apartment, celebrating with farcical dances.

The documentary intertwines the old footage with interviews of Nasubi in the present moment, as well as with all those involved at the time. The erstwhile contestant openly explained the turmoil he went through, perturbed by loneliness, starvation and suicidal thoughts. He underlined how he was robbed of his strength physically and mentally. And one could add that he was also robbed of his dignity.

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Before Clair Titley reached out to him — expressing the desire to make a feature documentary about his experience — people often misunderstood Nasubi’s gullible nature with a desire for fame. The film is intellectually honest since it also includes interviews with TV director Harutaro Kagawa and producer Toshio Tsuychia, who explain their motivations in creating the programme. Simultaneously, The Contestant shows the hardships that Nasubi’s mother Kazuko, sister Ikuyo, and childhood friend Anzai, had to go through seeing someone they cared for suffering on national television. Even a Western perspective is introduced to analyse the social experiment carried out in the name of entertainment, with interviewee Juliet Hindell who was the BBC’s Tokyo correspondent at the time and was shocked by the way spectators found it amusing rather than brutal. The film truly approaches all subjects without judgment, looking for the full story.

The beauty of Titley’s documentary is encapsulated also in the aftermath of the trauma, how Tomoaki Hamatsu managed to convey his training to extreme situations for a philanthropic cause that involved his hometown of Fukushima. When on March 3rd of 2011 the Tōhoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear incident devastated the region, the former comedian embarked upon a missing to climb Mount Everest as part of the efforts to aid his hometown. This helped also to brush away the old grudges with his producer Tsuchiya, who supported the cause. The symbolic feat of hope marked Nasubi’s renaissance through his tribute to the area’s beautiful mountains.

©Courtesy of Hulu

The Contestant turns out to be a therapeutic film for a man who was bullied as child — and given the label of a vegetable because of body shaming — and suffered the same psychological pressure as an adult. The film — that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and is being distributed by Hulu — investigates the human spirit’s resilience and power of transformation in the name of interconnectedness. In Japanese phenomenology, philosopher Watsuji came up with the concept of aidagara, that can be thought of as the space of community and interactive potential. Clair Titley’s documentary somehow conveys this idea, through the story of an individual who not only had the ability to overcome adversity, but constantly sought human connection. Nasubi initially looked for it in the wrong place, but ultimately conquered it through his newly found humanitarian purpose.

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The Contestant will be released on Hulu in the United States on Thursday, May 2, 2024.

Final Grade: A

Check out more of Chiara’s articles.

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