The Contestant‘ is a provoking documentary about the line between entertainment and cruelty – Sydney Film Festival Review

In the late 90s and early 2000s, the fascination with the absolutely wild and wacky Japanese game shows felt like a global phenomenon. The early days of YouTube were flooded with viral clips of stunts, pranks, and ludicrous challenges that often bordered on the edge of too far, but still provoked enormous amounts of laughter from those who watched because it seemed like there was an air of innocence and good sportsmanship from the contestants living through the intentional embarrassment.

However, in 1998, whether it was realised then or retrospectively, the lines between entertainment and maliciousness were extremely blurred when reality TV producer Toshio Tsuchiya created an unprecedented challenge for the television show, Susunu! Denpa Shonen.

The challenge: to live in an apartment, naked, and survive off of magazine sweepstakes prizes. That’s all food, necessities and comforts to live that had to be won in mail-in magazine competitions, until a 1-million Yen goal was reached, while completely cut-off from the outside world.

The challenger: an aspiring actor and comedian named Tomoaki Hamatsu, or better known by his chosen stage name, Nasubi. Unsure of the challenge he was about to endure, Nasubi’s incredibly likeable persona immediately won over the people of Japan, who were also completely fascinated by the idea of the challenge itself.

Director Clair Titley, a former BBC journalist who was covering the fascination behind the challenge as it was happening in 1998, immediately presents the idea that what Nasubi went through over the year-plus long period spent in this apartment was abjectly cruel and unusual. In fact, she was the only person to question whether Nasubi mentally struggled during his time on the show, while others treated him like an object of their fascination, almost like animals in a zoo.

Through interviews with Nasubi himself, his mother, friends, and most fascinatingly, the evil mastermind behind the project himself, Toshio Tsuchiya, The Contestant brilliantly presents the events that occurred purely as they happened, using the recollections of those involved to almost turn a mirror back on the viewer to ask the question, “Do you really believe this was okay?”

The challenge for the viewer is to really consider what affects all forms of reality television, even ones containing far less extreme circumstances compared to what Nasubi went through, has on those who consume it, and those who live through it. The idea that people can be manipulated to the extent of emotional, and even physical, abuse just for fleeting pieces of entertainment is a large part of Titley’s exploration within The Contestant.

It’s heartbreaking to live through Nasubi’s stories of being bullied as a child, and how his time isolated in this apartment, barely able to survive, reemerged those feelings of depression and exclusion again, without any remorse or consideration from a man whose primary focus was the psychologically torture someone because it was “interesting television”.

But as heartbreaking as it is to watch Nasubi endure this torture, and here the recollections of how it affected his family and friends, the resilience, tenacity, and ultimately the longing for human connection that drastically formed over his time in the room, leads to a heartwarming third act that follows Nasubi after the show, and the amazing humanitarian work he has done since.

The Contestant is fascinating in many different ways. The “social experiment” aspect of the reality show is interesting and challenging, asking the audience where the line between entertainment and cruelty lies. But the true heart of this documentary lies in Nasubi, who is charismatic and kind, and despite going through this traumatic experience, epitomises the good in humanity.

The Contestant is now playing at the 71st Sydney Film Festival.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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In the late 90s and early 2000s, the fascination with the absolutely wild and wacky Japanese game shows felt like a global phenomenon. The early days of YouTube were flooded with viral clips of stunts, pranks, and ludicrous challenges that often bordered on the...'The Contestant' is a provoking documentary about the line between entertainment and cruelty - Sydney Film Festival Review