The Contestant, like a real-life Oldboy, might be the year’s scariest documentary

Japanese comedian Nasubi, naked and with a huge pouf of wild hair, grins as he holds up a box full of the bags of dog food he’s about to eat on the game show Susunu! Denpa Shōnen, as seen in the documentary The Contestant
Image: Hulu/Everett Collection

How a Japanese comedian sealed naked in a room for more than a year helped shape reality TV

Twenty years ago, Park Chan-wook’s revenge thriller Oldboy turned him into a worldwide star, setting off a new wave of Korean neo-noirs and helping break down barriers for international cinema. The movie’s memorable, irresistible hook: After a drunken bender, Korean businessman Oh Dae-su wakes up in a small, dilapidated hotel room, where he’s been imprisoned by unknown parties. As months pass with no contact from the outside apart from anonymous food deliveries, he begins to unravel, numbed by isolation and helplessness.

Watching Hulu’s mesmerizing documentary The Contestant, it’s hard to believe Park and Oldboy manga writer Garon Tsuchiya didn’t take some inspiration from its subject, Nasubi. Starting in 1998, Nasubi spent more than a year naked, starving, and cut off from the world in a similarly small suite as part of a Japanese game show, utterly unaware that he was eventually being watched by 17 million gawking fans. His real-world story was considerably less gory than Oldboy, but it’s even more startling, given its big, surprising twists — and given how complicit Nasubi was in his own captivity and worldwide exploitation.

Clair Titley’s documentary starts with a brief overview of the game show, Susunu! Denpa Shōnen, and the environment that enabled it. In an era where reality TV was just starting to take off, Susunu! Denpa Shōnen specialized in luring participants into performing elaborate, dangerous stunts in the hopes of furthering their entertainment careers. A quick montage of footage from the show blitzes across a few of the show’s other most notorious moments, including an intercontinental hitchhiking trip that hospitalized one participant, and a stunt where two comedians were given a swan-shaped pedal boat and told to pedal from India to Indonesia.

But by far, the show’s most notorious project was “A Life in Prizes,” a segment where a would-be comedian was placed in a room, naked, with nothing but a rack of magazines and a pile of postcards, and ordered to live entirely off whatever he could win by entering magazine sweepstakes.

Producer Toshio Tsuchiya told Denpa Shōnen contestant Nasubi (born Hamatsu Tomoaki — the unusual shape of his face inspired his stage name, “Eggplant”) that he’d live in a room with one tripod-mounted camera, which he’d use to videotape short daily check-ins as he entered sweepstakes and slowly amassed 1 million yen worth of prizes. After the project finished, Toshio explained, the show would edit Nasubi’s footage and release it.

Instead, Toshio kept secret cameras in Nasubi’s room running 24 hours a day. Initially, the show’s producers edited the footage down into short segments for the show. Once millions of fans became obsessed with Nasubi, though, detractors denounced him as an actor faking the entire stunt. So Toshio began to livestream the cameras from Nasubi’s room, employing an around-the-clock staff to monitor the feed and hand-operate the mobile video effect that obscured Nasubi’s genitals with a CG eggplant.

The footage Titley assembles from Denpa Shōnen feels remarkably like a manically narrated version of Bo Burnham: Inside, with Nasubi’s naked dancing replacing the musical interludes. Hoping for a TV comedy career once the show actually aired, Nasubi played to his camera during the window where he knew it was on. He performs celebratory rituals whenever he wins a prize, pulls silly faces and tries out silly voices, and generally clowns for an imaginary audience. The goofy antics and the ridiculous extremes of the whole experiment edge toward making The Contestant feel comic and weightless, a light entertainment like so many other reality-TV gimmick shows.

Nasubi, a Japanese man with wild, unkempt long hair, grins into the camera in a scene from Hulu’s documentary The Contestant
Image: Hulu/Everett Collection

The hidden cameras tell another story. As months stretch by, Nasubi tries to survive with no source of nutrition but sparse, random prizes like fruit drinks and dog food. He grows increasingly gaunt and bony. He suffers bouts of lassitude, depression, confusion, and what seems like mania. And Toshio just keeps rolling.

Twenty-five years after the incredibly discomfiting end of the “Life in Prizes” experiment, Titley brought Nasubi and Toshio in for studio interviews to discuss their memories of this international exercise in voyeurism. Nasubi is calm and philosophical about his ordeal, explaining why he didn’t just walk away from the experiment when he began deteriorating, and taking a clear-eyed look at what it did to him mentally. Toshio, meanwhile, remains politely apologetic about how sadistically he pushed Nasubi to continue on the show, but offers few explanations or insights into his behind the scenes decisions. The movie is likely to leave viewers with more questions about the story than they went in with.

Part of that comes from Titley’s refusal to editorialize, or to shape the story in a way that suggests a larger context. It’s easy to take it as a frightening story about what people are willing to endure (or make other people endure) in exchange for fame or profit. And given how famous Nasubi became both inside and outside of Japan, it’s similarly easy to take “A Life in Prizes” as a milestone event in the growth of reality TV, and the fascination with watching people harm themselves on camera to entertain others. (Jackass started airing the year after “A Life in Prizes” ended. So did Survivor. Fear Factor came the year after that.)

But it’s just as easy to see as “A Life in Prizes” as a companion piece to the Stanford Prison Experiment, an example of how easily power can lure ordinary people into cruelty and abuse, and how easy it is to become obedient and accepting in the hands of power, and to accept even a ruinous status quo. As Nasubi points out in an interview with Titley, the door to his tiny apartment wasn’t locked, and he could have left at any time. Past a certain point, he says, he didn’t have the will to resist.

The Contestant subject Nasubi in a modern-day interview, sitting on a tatami-floored room in front of open shoji, with his hair neatly cut short
Image: Hulu/Everett Collection

The Contestant doesn’t draw out any of these larger ideas, and Titley’s handling of her subjects seems gentle and cautious rather than probing. There are a lot of unsettling revelations in The Contestant, including that Toshio encouraged Nasubi to keep a journal about his day-to-day life — which was then taken away and published, without Nasubi’s knowledge. (It became a four-volume national bestseller.) But the film doesn’t explore how that happened, or question the ethics behind it: It just notes the publication of Nasubi’s diary as a data point in establishing the scope of his fame in Japan.

It might be considered admirable how firmly Titley sticks to the facts, rather than trying to draw out a moral from the entire situation. But it leaves the story feeling more like a quirky, isolated human-interest story than a watershed moment in the development of exploitative, stunt-driven reality television. It plays like a feature-length version of the “Here’s a wacky story from Japan…” news items that Titley excerpts at the beginning of the film, more a curiosity than a bigger discussion-starter. And when Nasubi enters his post-Denpa Shōnen life and embarks on a radical personal project, the film morphs into something more like a slick, inspirational feel-good story. It’s certainly a relief to see Nasubi healthy and happy after the early going, but there’s a constant sense of a film skating across the surface of a remarkable story, rather than exploring its depths.

None of which makes The Contestant any less of a compelling watch. We seem to have moved past the peak of grim cautionary documentaries focused on the seemingly endless environmental, technological, and societal apocalypses looming in the near future, maybe because they’d piled up in such numbing profusion that audiences were turning away. In spite of the guilty voyeuristic lure of a naked guy who doesn’t know he’s being filmed, the “Wow, this guy’s so wacky!” framing of Toshio’s game show, and the big, bright uplift of the ending, this movie is as frightening as any of the doomsaying docs of the last few decades.

The Contestant is streaming on Hulu now.

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