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TIFF ’23 Review: ‘The Contestant’ goes behind the scenes of an outrageous reality show

‘The Contestant’ recounts one man’s naked experience on a Japanese reality show

A scene from ‘The Contestant’
A scene from ‘The Contestant’ courtesy of TIFF
A scene from ‘The Contestant’ courtesy of TIFF

‘The Contestant’ recounts one man’s naked experience on a Japanese reality show that made him a reluctant celebrity.

YouTube is filled with episodes and clips from Japanese reality and game shows, which are drastically different from their Western counterparts. They often include scaring, injuring or embarrassing participants in ways that seem silly to viewers, while the hosts overreact to the incident and replays capture every painstaking moment. The culture’s general tendency to be obedient and polite seems to allow for much of this, as well as some desire to be on television regardless of the context. In The Contestant, an aspiring comedian is cast for a television show that would take more than a year of his life to complete.

Tomoaki Hamatsu, a.k.a. Nasubi, grew up in a small town where he was regularly teased and bullied for having an oblong-shaped head. One day, he learns he can circumvent his tormentors by making the jokes himself, which eventually leads him to pursue a career as a comedian. He moves to the city to follow his dream and attends a mystery audition for a TV show. Randomly selected from the group, he’s taken to a tiny apartment at a secret location. Instructed to strip, he’s told going forward he’ll need to win anything he needs to survive from magazine sweepstakes via mail-in postcards, including clothes and food. Once he accumulates one million yen in winnings, the game ends.

This reality show is as messed up as it sounds, but 15 million people tuned in weekly to see Nasubi’s progress on Denpa Shonen: A Life in Prizes — though Nasubi wasn’t even aware it was being broadcast. It’s difficult for him to explain his motivation for staying as long as he did, particularly when it was having a damaging effect on his body and mind. But on the other side of the camera, the showrunner was deemed a genius. Producer Toshio Tsuchiya is unquestionably the villain of the story. Even the way he talks about the experience is cold and cruel, completely disregarding Nasubi’s well-being at the time and focussing solely on ratings.

The documentary strives to give audiences the complete picture, interviewing Nasubi, Tsuchiya, as well as other people involved in the show, and Nasubi’s family and friends. Their interviews are intercut with a lot of footage from the program, which also had a live component. The sentiment from the show’s viewers is they felt they knew Nasubi, thus he’s a celebrity once he finally emerges from his tiny prison. What he does with his newfound fame is somewhat unexpected, but there is a redemption element to the story.

(Side note, it’s fascinating to discover the show may have bore the double entendre of the eggplant emoji still used in lewd texts today.)

The Contestant had its world premiere in the TIFF Docs programme at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Read other reviews from the festival.

Director: Clair Titley

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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