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The Contestant – Raindance Film Festival 2024

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer and Director: Clair Titley

Nowadays, reality shows are mostly cosy affairs with nothing more dramatic than a soggy bottom in The Great British Bake Off or a hungry bottom in Sewing Bee. Even the surprise smash hit, The Traitors, is dignified with the promised murders being nothing more than a letter in an envelope opened by a Faithful sitting in a comfortable armchair. But reality shows weren’t always as safe as Clair Titley’s documentary about a Japanese TV show compellingly demonstrates.

In 1998, the ‘game show’ Denpa Shōnen was first broadcast on Japanese TV putting its contestants through gruelling tasks, soon capturing millions of viewers. But it was one section of the programme, where one man, naked in a small apartment, had to stay alive by winning food and clothes by entering magazine competitions that really began to grip the nation. A stack of postcards was provided as well as a constant supply of magazines. He’d win once he’d acquired goods totalling a million yen. He was in the room and then another one in Korea for over a year.

Each week, Denpa Shōnen showed highlights of the man in the room doing silly dances and eating dog food. It was edited in a way to make people laugh. However, the contestant Nasubi had never signed up for such a long and dangerous ordeal. He volunteered for the show but had no idea what his mission was to be. There were no checks on his mental health during the 15 months he was enclosed in the rooms, and although there was a camera filming his experience, he was told that it was unlikely that any of the footage would be used.

In an interview for Titley’s film, the show’s producer, Toshio Tsuchiya, still seems proud of his decisions and shows little remorse in putting Nasubi through such hell. At first, before Nasubi had won any prizes, Tsuchiya allowed him a few crackers a day and when he did eventually win some food it was a bag of uncooked rice. The shots of him trying to cook the rice are truly hard to watch, especially as TV viewers were meant to find it funny, the canned laughter guiding the emotions of the audience.

Nasubi ‘entered’ the show with the hope of becoming a famous comedian. After being bullied at school, he thought that, perhaps, comedy could be a way to become popular. Even his name, a nickname (his real name is Tomoaki Hamatsu), is a result of childhood bullying. In Japanese, ‘Nasubi’ means aubergine and refers to his long face, something that the TV show milks for all its worth. In a chat show after Nasubi’s show has finished, one host thinks it’s appropriate to measure his face with a tape measure.

Without any of the talking heads actually declaring it, Titley’s documentary makes it clear that Nasubi is bullied well into his adulthood, all for the sake of viewing figures, shown most clearly when the goalposts of the game are moved constantly, ensuring that his confinement is extended regularly. Rather than entertainment, his ordeal now looks like torture.

Sensibly, recounting the story chronologically, the most interesting part of Titley’s film focuses on what happens after Nasubi is ‘released’ into the outside world, receiving, it appears, no support on how to deal with his sudden fame or any treatment to help with the mental health effects of his long isolation. That he seems to find some kind of closure is down to Nasubi himself, definitely not from Tsuchiya.

At least, Big Brother in its early days labelled itself as a ‘social experiment’ rather than as entertainment. Denpa Shōnen, in comparison, is cruel. Fascinating and uncomfortable, The Contestant is worth a thousand Love Islands and Survivors. And if you ever wondered why the aubergine emoji came to mean what it does, this film will tell you. However, the crying face emoji might be a more suitable shortcut to summarise this film.

The Contestant is screening at the Raindance Film Festivalwhich runs from 19 – 28 June in London cinemas.

The Reviews Hub Score

Cruel and Unusual

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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