Credit: Courtesy of TIFF
by Conor Truax Featured Film Streaming Scene

The Contestant — Clair Titley

May 3, 2024

Reality television has become one of the most dominant modes of storytelling in media entertainment. In fact, the reach of reality television, as well as its leakage offscreen and across other forms of media — whether it be news media or social media — has become part of our collective waking life. Now, rather than reality informing only reality television, reality television informs likewise reality, and that spiral of influence converges into a pit of ambiguous hyperreality.

It’s hard to think that it hasn’t always been this way; that at one time, before vlogging and YouTube and reality TV, there were proto-reality series that marked a new form of entertainment made exciting by the possibility of capturing life as it truly is, defining it to a broad audience with “authenticity.” This novelty is what made Susunu! Denpa Shōnen a national sensation in Japan at the end of the 20th century, and this phenomenon is what lies at the heart of Claire Titley’s new documentary The Contestant, specifically via the context of Shōnen’s most famous participant: Nasubi.

Shōnen functioned as a variety show of various filmed segments and challenges, and put aspiring comedians looking to vault their name into the public consciousness in extreme situations. Some were placed on a desert island and challenged to build a raft and navigate back to Tokyo; others were tasked with hitchhiking from South Africa to Norway. Of these, the most successful, and extreme, was that of Nasubi, a man whose pseudonym translates to “eggplant,” chosen because of his elongated face.

After a sweepstakes draw, and his elation at “his first stroke of luck,” Nasubi was blindfolded and carted to an isolated, windowless studio flat where he was forced to strip naked. Then, he was given his challenge: he would have to win everything he needed to sustain himself from magazine sweepstakes earnings, and wouldn’t be allowed to leave the confines of the room until the value of his prizes surpassed ¥1,000,000. Nasubi was reluctant to appear naked before a camera out of a promise made to his family, but Tsuchiya, the show’s producer, assured him that no footage, if any, would ever air. Nasubi was then left in the room for fifteen months as he ate dog food, made rice in plastic bottles over an open stove, and cried into open journals where he raged at the difficulty of his circumstance. These journals were ultimately taken from him by the production team, and subsequently sold en masse to bestselling status as the weekly footage of Nasubi gained more and more popularity, before eventually eclipsing even the ratings of the Olympics.

By the time Nasubi completed the challenge, he was suicidally depressed and a national star. He returned to his family and dealt with the show’s fallout, both physically and emotionally, before struggling and failing to achieve the comedic goals he’d initially set for himself. Fifteen years later, he climbed Everest, and another eight after that, he candidly sat down in front of cameras once again, this time in conversation with Claire Titley for her documentary about his experience.

In fairly rote style, Titley alternates between footage of the show and interviews with Nasubi and Tsuchiya, both grappling with their involvement with the show. At times, Nasubi’s answers are played to Tsuchiya, who seems to process his words with benign acceptance. And this is how the majority of The Contestant plays out; lambasting the divide between good and evil, between the exploitative and the exploited in a media age that demands the compulsive disclosure of all facets of our lives with everyone online. This approach, ultimately, offers nothing new; what is new, however, is a rushed glimpse provided to viewers at the end of the film that offers brief redemptive insight into Tsuchiya’s remorse over the damage he’d caused Nasubi, executed in a way that perhaps slightly smudges the binary of good and evil into something more soft-hued and indeterminate.

There’s no denying that a film like The Contestant holds a certain measure of discursive importance, bringing to public consciousness a sensational moment in media history that was somehow mostly forgotten — or maybe intentionally buried — in a way that estranges our current reality and pushes us toward a more critical evaluation of how we got here, why we’re still here, and where we might be going. Still, it’s hard not to feel that between its perfunctory structure and its overreliance on archival footage, that The Contestant doesn’t run the same risk of exploiting Nasubi for the sake of sanctimony. After all, there’s little evidence of a public that, by any critical measure, actionably thinks or cares to change the culture that Shōnen implored.

DIRECTOR: Claire Titley;  DISTRIBUTOR: Hulu;  STREAMING: May 2;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 30 min.

Originally published as part of TIFF 2023 — Dispatch 5.