The craziness of Japanese game shows is a global joke, and The Contestant, a must-see documentary now playing at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, will help you understand why.
The film, from British director Clair Tutley, tells the story of a man named Tomoaki Hamatsu who was quickly nicknamed Nasubi, or eggplant, because his head was supposedly long, like an eggplant. Hold your disappointment at the childish cruelty of the name: It’s only the beginning of the indignities inflicted on Nasubi.
In 1998, Toshio Tsuchiya, producer of the hit Japanese TV series Susunu! Denpa Shonen (roughly translated as Do Not Proceed! Crazy Youth!) was looking to shake the idea that his successful series was just a kind of travel game show. And so he invited dozens of young people to audition for a new experiment he had envisioned for Denpa Shonen.
Soon Nasubi entered his plans. Growing up in Fukushima, Japan — when he wasn’t moving frequently because of his father’s job as a cop — he was mocked by classmates because of the shape of his head. He aspired to join the entertainment industry, and left for Tokyo. His mother’s advice as he left was to please never take off his clothes on camera.
But that’s the first thing he did.
Nasubi Becomes The Contestant
After beating others at an audition for for Denpa Shonen through what Tsuchiya describes as “luck” — good or bad, we’ll later wonder — Nasubi is taken to a room filled with magazines, a radio, a phone and other basic items and ordered to strip.
Tsuchiya told him most of the footage would never be aired, later explaining to Tutley’s documentary crew, “When someone hears that they stop paying attenton to the camera. That’s when you can really capture a lot.”
And he does.
Nasubi is told that in order to win the game, he must win at least 1 million yen — about $7,000 in U.S. dollars — in prize competitions held by radio stations and magazines. The prizes from these competitions will also be his source of food and clothing, assuming he wins any.
Until then, the producers feed him crackers to keep him alive.
He has only a cushion to cover himself. The show’s producers also cover his genitalia with an image of an eggplant. A BBC correspondent explains that the frequent sight of the eggplant on the show is the reason the eggplant emoji has come to be internet shorthand for a penis.
It is 17 days before he wins his first prize — jelly. Once it arrives, the crackers stop. Soon he is winning — and eating — dog food.
He is also losing his mind.
Through extensive editing. the show’s producers expunge his loneliness and pain and add silly graphics and voiceover for comic effect. (The voiceover is reproduced in The Contestant by a comedy star who is an ideal choice.) Through the magic of television. Nasubi’s stir-craziness, exhaustion and hunger come off as innocent, good-natured goofiness.
By this point in Nasubi’s story, The Contestant is only a third of the way through. And I’ve barely described all the insanity so far. There is much more to come.
And Nasubi doesn’t know that anyone is watching.
‘Bizarre and Grotesque’
One of the few viewers who knows the real Tomoaki Hamatsu recognizes the spectacle as “bizarre and grotesque.”
But it is also new: As Contestant reminds us, it aired before reality competitions like Big Brother, in the same year, 1998, that the Jim Carrey film The Truman Show had as its high concept the notion that people might watch a man without his knowledge, at all times.
As Tsuchiya notes, Nasubi could have left anytime. His door was unlocked.
He conveniently leaves out the part about Nasubi being naked, and having no idea where he is.
And yet: the film isn’t just a shocked recounting of the insane spectacle lightly summarized here. Nasubi, as we are reassured by his own on-camera interviews, is alive, and looks good.
But the film has many more surprises in store, and its to Tutley’s great credit that she doesn’t just focus on the most ghastly period of Nasubi’s life, but on what comes after.
In these moments, The Contestant becomes not just shocking and compulsively watchable — which it certainly is — but also transcendent, and moving. It lifts you from shock and outrage to the higher emotions, through the eyes of a man who has endured, unwittingly, the eyes of his whole country.
The Contestant is now playing at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Screening details are here.
Main image: The Contestant.