The Contestant 2023 Movie Review
It takes chutzpah to open your documentary with archival footage of a news anchor saying “If you put what we’re about to show you in a movie, I doubt anyone would believe it,” but Clair Titley’s “The Contestant” has the goods to back it up. If the story told here were the subject of a scripted biopic, it would smack of exaggeration or gross dramatic license; if it were told in a narrative film, it would seem about as realistic as Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy,” which might be the work of fiction that it most closely resembles.
In Titley’s hands, however, the harrowing tale of the cruelest reality show ever conceived is all too believable. In part, that’s because the director contextualizes this disturbing episode of TV history with well-edited reams of archival footage and a wide variety of all-access interviews. And in part that’s because what happened to a man known as Nasubi at the end of the 20th century has proven frighteningly predictive of the torturous mind games that reality television programs have inflicted upon their contestants ever since. Then again, there’s never been another reality television program quite like “A Life in Prizes.”
Nicknamed Nasubi (Japanese for “eggplant”) in reference to his long and slate-like head, amateur comedian Tomoaki Hamatsu didn’t know what he was getting into when he won an audition for an unspecified job sponsored by famous Japanese TV producer Toshio Tsuchiya. Bullied for his looks as a kid, Nasubi was drawn to opportunities like that because — like so many others with similar childhood experiences — he found power and acceptance in making people laugh. Better to be the source of a joke than its punchline. His parents were sympathetic to Nasubi’s struggles and relatively encouraging of his professional aspirations. His mom’s only caution: “Whatever you do, don’t get naked.”
The first thing that Tsuchiya instructed Nasubi to do after being cast at random from a room full of other candidates and driven to a tiny one-bedroom apartment which was completely empty save for a rack full of magazines? Strip completely naked (censors naturally used an eggplant emoji to obscure Nasubi’s genitals, which may have been ground zero for the purple fruit’s association with penises). Nasubi was told that he would only be released from his spartan little cell once he’d received the equivalent of $8,000 in mail-in sweepstakes prizes from the magazines on the shelf; until then, he could only eat or wear something if he won it.
The contestant had no idea how seriously his producer-jailer would take the experiment, nor that highlights of his bizarre incarceration — dubbed “A Life in Prizes” — would be cut into irreverent weekly segments that aired as part of the “Susunu! Denpa Shōnen” variety show, turning the program into a national phenomenon that pulled in 17 million viewers every Sunday night (Nasubi was under the impression that the footage wasn’t going to be edited into anything until the experiment was over). Nasubi would start to waste away before he finally won some sugary drinks. At one point, he was forced to survive on dog food for several weeks.
Without spoiling the suspense, I’ll say that the experiment continued for more than a year, Nasubi never received a wearable article of clothing, and the cruelty only got worse once he had “won.”
To watch “The Contestant” — to see footage from “A Life in Prizes” edited to emphasize its inhumanity rather than chopped up into five-minute segments that are played for laughs, the original broadcast’s cartoonish graphics and sound effects having been removed by a special effects artist — is to be strung along a constellation of ever-increasing horrors. The details are so hypnotically sadistic that Titley’s documentary is seldom bothered to deviate from them, as none of the film’s retrospective interviews, candid and thoughtful as they are, prove as gripping as the raw video of Nasubi’s ordeal.
The interviews also offer precious little in the way of insight, as Tsuchiya’s motives are perfectly clear from the start (“We’re trying to show the most primitive form of human being,” he says), while Nasubi’s decision not to leave remains something of a mystery even to him. If the former is a bug, the latter is more of a feature; Tsuchiya is every good reality TV producer the world has ever known, but Nasubi is a lot more than just great casting.
Forged in a more innocent era of television, Nasubi isn’t blinded by the spotlight or building his brand. He is, at most only semi-interested in being famous, and — for all of the prizes that become his basic lifeline — he isn’t playing for anything but his freedom, which is technically available to him at all times.
So while “The Contestant” offers a window into a critical moment in the history of reality TV, and the blitheness of its bullying anticipates the damage that social media would eventually do to contestants on shows like “Terrace House” and “Love Island,” Titley’s film is ultimately less of a commentary on an entire medium than it is a study of one of that medium’s most remarkable characters (it’s certainly not about the role that Japanese culture may have played in this phenomenon, as the documentary’s gaijin director makes no attempt to understand if and how “Life in Prizes” was a product of its country. She even hired Fred Armisen to dub the show’s original audio commentary so that she didn’t need to subtitle it).
That narrow focus never allows “The Contestant” to grow beyond the story it’s telling, but it suits a film about a program that felt more like a Stanley Milgram experiment than it did a TV show. Why did Nasubi endure Tsuchiya’s endless mindfuck for so long? Was it because he wanted to win against the most perverse bully he’d ever met — a revenge of sorts against all of the people who’d gotten the best of him as a child? Was it simply because humans are a frighteningly adaptable species who are hard-wired to accept orders, particularly in societies where people are reverential towards those higher in the pecking order (Nasubi says that he thought of Tsuchiya as a god)?
The answer is likely some unknowable combination of the above, though the third act of Titley’s film, which recounts Nasubi’s accomplishments in the years since “Life in Prizes” in lieu of probing deeper into his relationship with Tsuchiya, certainly suggests that his supernatural tenacity had something to do with it. Losing faith in humanity can make people do extraordinary things. So can finding it again.