Modern reality TV’s lineage can, in many ways, be traced back to Susunu! Denpa Shōnen, a 1998-2002 Japanese game show that made international headlines for its outrageous premise and dubious format. On the program, young aspiring comedian Tomoaki Hamatsu—known as Nasubi (i.e., eggplant)—was placed in a largely barren room, stripped of his clothes and personal belongings, and told that he could only leave once he’d accumulated $1 million yen’s worth of prizes earned from magazine mail-in sweepstakes.
The ensuing 15-month spectacle gripped national audiences and raised a host of ethical questions, and in writer/director Clair Titley’s absorbing documentary The Contestant (premiering at this year’s Toronto Film Festival), it reeks to high hell of abject cruelty—thereby speaking volumes about the ugliness of the program, its star producer, and the genre itself.
Nasubi’s nickname was a reference to his long face, which had led to considerable harassment as a child, and the fact that it became a central component of his screen persona—replete with his genitals being covered by an eggplant emoji (how prescient!)—marks Susunu! Denpa Shōnen as a large-scale form of bullying. Nasubi, however, didn’t at first realize that; stuck in his room and given his task (which involved writing hundreds of daily postcards to enter random prize draws), he was told that the material would likely never make it to air. Since, upon leaving his native Fukushima for Tokyo to embark on his entertainment career, he’d promised his parents that he’d refrain from getting naked, this was no doubt a relief to Nasubi—and thus one of the many ways in which he was actively misled.