The Contestant tells the true story of Japanese reality TV star, Tomoaki Hamatsu (nicknamed Nasubi), who was seized by prominent TV producer Toshio Tsuchiya in 1998 while he thought he was attending an audition. In order to acquire the prize of one million yen, he was forced to fill out contest coupons through magazines… with nothing to do or eat. As things spiral, Nasubi almost starves to death multiple times throughout his journey in his solitary hell.
Nasubi, by choice, stayed for his chance of stardom, and was able to persist for months with unflinching resolve for about one and half years. While not aware that his experiences were being shared with millions of people on the TV program Denpa Shonen, Nasubi became an unintentional star as he was cut off from his family and the outside world.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the way provides insight into our oversharing culture. The main questions are: should Nasubi or anyone else behind the camera feel remorse or rage? Was Nasubi truly a victim, or did this experience just seem harsh when seen through an outsiders point of view? Although it is well known that Japanese game shows frequently appeal to the audience’s need for extreme situations, did the series in which Nasubi took part, become famous because it went beyond all reasonable expectations?
The timing of this film could have not been more perfect with the strikes going down in L.A. right now. The Contestant really highlights the abuse of power that large studios like Denpa Shonen and producers like Toshio Tsuchiya create to manipulate people in desperate situations for the chance of fame. When asked by the interviewer if Toshio ‘considered himself Nasubi’s god’, especially considering he controlled all aspects of his life during the duration of this show, he jokes that he was ‘more like Nasubi’s devil’. While Denpa Shonen made millions off Nasubi’s weekly episodes, Nasubi presently states how he was losing his mind and suffering so badly mentally he considered suicide many times, a more literal version of large studios sapping the life out of their talent for profit.
The Contestant is playing at TIFF ’23. For more information, click here.