‘The Contestant’: Traumatic Isolation Played for Laughs

Naked, alone in a tiny room in Japan, Nasubi had one way to survive: submit entries for sweepstakes.

For 15 months beginning in 1998, Nasubi lived in isolation, entering sweepstakes to win food, clothing and other items, while his movements were captured on camera for the wildly popular Japanese reality TV show, “Susunu! Denpa Shonen.”

A 22-year-old aspiring comedian, Nasubi had willingly entered this reality TV challenge, a segment titled “A Life in Prizes,” thinking that footage would be recorded and possibly aired after it was over. In actuality, he was being broadcast to millions of viewers across Japan every week.

Nasubi’s ordeal, and the mental and emotional damage it inflicted on him, are the focus of a new documentary, “The Contestant,” which was first shown at the Toronto International Film Festival and is now streaming on Hulu.

Directed by Clair Titley and produced by Megumi Inman, “The Contestant” draws on interviews with Nasubi and his mother, sister and friend, as well as with Toshio Tsuchiya, the producer of “Susunu! Denpa Shonen.” Nasubi’s full name is Tomoaki Hamatsu, but he was nicknamed Nasubi, which means “eggplant” in Japanese, because of his long, angular face.

As it traces Nasubi’s transformation — from a kid who was bullied because of his looks to a TV star — the documentary probes the relationship between the audience, the artistic creators and the subjects onscreen. It implicitly asks, to what ends will people go for amusement? And when does entertainment veer into exploitation?

Titley learned about Nasubi’s experience in 2017 when she found an article about it while researching other film ideas. She wanted the documentary to focus on his emotional journey, including the turmoil he experienced from being on the show and the joy he eventually found in philanthropic work.

“The more I dug into it, the more I found that most of what was online at the time felt quite simplistic about his story,” Titley said in an interview. “They weren’t really talking about Nasubi’s story, but more about the show. And it was on the verge of being a bit derogatory about Japanese culture.”

The documentary draws on archival footage from Nasubi’s time in the apartment, as he descends into a state of comical, crazed isolation: His hair and beard grow increasingly unkempt, his mannerisms become wild and unnerving and he prances about the room, naked except for a cartoonish eggplant the producer used to cover his genitalia.

In the documentary, Tsuchiya candidly admits that he told Nasubi most of this footage would never be aired. “I am the devil,” he says.

After finally earning 1 million yen (about $8,000 at the time) worth of prizes and completing the challenge, Nasubi emerged from the competition to a new reality. The show had turned him into a celebrity and he received 10 million yen in compensation, but inwardly he still felt shattered and alone. The documentary shows him grappling with the trauma of his time in isolation, until he finds purpose in helping the victims of the 2011 Fukushima tsunami and earthquake.

During a visit to Manhattan earlier this month, Nasubi said that it had been difficult for him to watch the documentary and relive his experience. But when he attended a New York screening in November and saw people in the audience crying, he realized his story of isolation and trauma resonated with others.

“There are so many people who can relate to my story,” he said.

In separate interviews in New York, Nasubi (through an interpreter) and Titley and Inman (together) discussed what Nasubi’s story says about human psychology and reality television and how Nasubi feels about the experience now. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

How did you first get in touch with Nasubi and become involved in this project?

CLAIR TITLEY I wrote him a letter and we started having conversations on Skype back and forth. And he said, “Let’s just make this movie; I’ll come over to the U.K.” So he came to stay with me, and we had a 10-day holiday in the U.K. on the Isle of Wight. We spent our evenings playing table tennis, and I think it was one of the first times he really unpacked his story to that extent. At the end of it all, we shot this teaser tape. After that I felt I could take it out and start pitching.

MEGUMI INMAN My partner gave me a business card of Clair’s and it had a photo of Nasubi on it. I recognized it because I spent part of my childhood in Japan, and when I was 12 or 13 years old, I was a massive fan of the show; I was completely captivated. It was only when I saw Clair’s business card, which had a TV with Nasubi trapped inside, that the penny dropped. I can’t believe I had never seen it from the other side.

Nasubi, how did you end up trusting Titley with telling your story?

NASUBI I got contacted from the Western media for interviews, but somebody who wanted to make a documentary film, that was something new. I didn’t know about Clair at all, so I wasn’t sure if I could trust her in the beginning. But all the Western media that contacted me usually focused on the negative side. They often asked, “Why didn’t you sue?” And they told me this is a human rights violation. But Clair was different: She said she wanted to make this like a recovery story, a human story. So that made me start to trust her.

What do you remember about the role of “Susunu! Denpa Shonen” in Japanese pop culture and the entertainment world at the time?

INMAN Everyone knows that TV show, everyone in my age and that generation or older. In Japan, people still watch the same TV shows at the same time. Twenty years ago, it was so rare for normal people to go on television, and I think this show kind of broke that. But there’s a power imbalance as well. People didn’t know to talk about contracts and think about their rights. Everyone just wanted to be on television.

TITLEY We know now that if you go on a show, you should be prepared to be manipulated in some way. It was the Wild West of TV programming, where producers had so much control. There were no contracts. I wonder sometimes how far we’ve really come. It’s easy to look back and think about the cruelty of it, but it was interesting when we first met Tsuchiya and asked him if something like this could happen now. His response is that the Japanese would never do something as cruel and twisted as “Love Island.”

Nasubi, while you were isolated in the apartment on the show, did you feel that you had the opportunity to leave?

NASUBI I knew that the outside door wasn’t locked. So if I really wanted to escape, I could have.

What kept you going?

NASUBI It’s really difficult to explain that in just one word. But I was not normal mentally. When you are pushed into that kind of solitude, when you are in confined environments like that, it’s like a mental syndrome. You come to think it’s much safer to stay in the environment than it is to change the environment. So at that time I felt like it was more risky to change the environment and to get out. Also the strength of my mind and my heart were taken away. And this was something that I had decided to do, so I had to go through until the end. I had to persevere. I wanted to have mental fortitude. It was something like proving myself as well.

Did you feel like the producer deceived you?

NASUBI Yes, because I was never told that this would be broadcast. I thought it was going to be a pilot, an experiment to see if the show could be on air or not. I thought it would probably last a maximum of maybe one or two months.

What are you hoping to convey through this documentary?

TITLEY For me it’s very much a film about connection and about a man who goes searching for connection, maybe looks for it in the wrong places and finds it in unusual places. But I do also want people to come away questioning their own relationship with social media and with media, generally, and reality TV.

INMAN I came to this story thinking that I knew the story because I’d been in the audience, and I thought Nasubi was this wild, funny, crazy character. But he’s got the soul of a monk, the spirit of a child — he’s so loyal and good hearted, and he’s not what you expect from a reality TV star. So for me it really questioned, what is reality? What do we know?

Looking back, more than 20 years later, do you regret going on the show?

NASUBI It would be a lie if I said I’m not regretting, even though I learned to live with the past. Did I forgive Tsuchiya, the producer? To be honest, in my heart, there is still something that is hating the person.

But then in 2011, a big earthquake happened in Fukushima. I could really relate to the people who are struggling. So without my experience in the past, I might not have been able to resonate with people in the tough situation. That’s when I realized my past struggle could be something useful. So I realized that instead of regretting my past, I have to learn to live with my past and turn this around to make my negative past into something positive.

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