‘The Contestant’ Review: 1998 Japanese Reality Show Makes for Absurd Entertainment

Every film festival with a robust documentary section will have its share of WTF movies, but “The Contestant” could well be the WTF-iest at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Premiering on Friday in the TIFF Docs section, director Clair Titley’s film starts with a ridiculous but true premise and piles on more and more ridiculousness until the whole thing makes no sense at all. Except that it happened.

Your jaw may drop, your head may shake and you may well end up hating at least one character, but it’s hard to take your eyes off the damn thing — and especially hard to take your eyes off Tomoaki Hamatsu, aka Nabusi, the poor guy at the center of it.

It started in 1998 with the Japanese reality TV show “Denpa Shonen,” which was originally dedicated to putting young people through endurance tests. Two years before “Survivor” premiered and helped kick off the U.S. reality craze, producer Toshio Tsuchiya came up with the idea for a portion of the show that would be called “A Life in Prizes,” in which a contestant would be left in a room, naked, with stacks of magazines and then be asked to fill out coupons to win sweepstakes prizes for food, clothing, cooking utensils and other necessities. And if they were to win things that weren’t necessities — say, stuffed animals or tires — those would go toward the ultimate goal of winning 1 million yen (about $7,000 U.S. today) in prizes.

Hamatsu — at this point a comedian in his mid 20s who’d learned that entertaining people was the best way to stop being bullied for a face that was so long it had earned him the childhood nickname Nabusi, or Eggplant — became a contestant selected randomly in the casting call. Tsuchiya led him to a room, told him to take off all his clothes, and then explained that he had to win prizes until he hit the 1 million mark. Nabusi, as he was known on the show, had no idea he was being filmed and broadcast in 10-minute weekly segments, but he went along with the premise not knowing that he was becoming a huge TV star.

Later, he said, “I learned that my mother was shedding tears worrying about her shaggy, naked, idiotic son.”

The producers didn’t let him starve, of course: “We fed him crackers, a little at a time,” one said, adding that once Nabusi began winning food prizes, he had to live on what he won. For the 30 million weekly TV viewers, he was wickedly entertaining — a naked guy romping around the room with an animated eggplant covering his private parts. When some people speculated that the whole thing was staged and he wasn’t really in the room 24 hours a day, “Denpa Shonen” began a round-the-clock livestream, which necessitated technicians on hand at all times to reposition the eggplant every time Nabusi’s crotch moved.

He was an enormously successful entertainer, but he didn’t know it — and in the room, Nabusi says in current interviews for the film, he was desperately lonely. (The crew was told not to interact with him.)

Apart from the interviews with Nabusi, Tsuchiya and others, “The Contestant” adopts the zaniness of “Denpa Shonen” itself, sticking to an energetic and frenetic tone that can be dizzying as the months go by and the prizes pile up. (The original Japanese narration on the show is translated and dubbed by Fred Armisen.) But with Nabusi also describing how he battled intense loneliness and even madness, it starts to become downright morose and depressing — so Titley and her film up the ante and turn things crazy and hallucinogenic.

Still, by the time Nabusi hits his 1 million goal, only to be taken to Korea and told to start again, it’s hard not to turn on Tsuchiya and his whole sadistic enterprise. “Whether it was wrong or not, I couldn’t help but be obsessed,” the producer says.

Yes, he was obsessed. And yes, it was wrong. And at times, “The Contestant” seems to want to have it both ways: It uses Nabusi as a grandly entertaining subject and then absolves itself by bringing up how awfully he was being abused.

But in some ways, Nabusi himself has the last laugh. Although he says he “lost his faith in humanity” during the year-plus he spent naked in that room, he also found a mind-boggling second act in his life, one that shouldn’t be spoiled here. Suffice it to say that while the mastermind behind “A Life in Prizes” comes across as an awful person despite his attempts to be better, the subject of that show is something of a hero.

As for the documentary itself, it’s baffling, infuriating and, yes, very entertaining in its pursuit of the next WTF moment. “The Contestant” wants you to be entertained and it wants you to feel bad about being entertained. It pretty much succeeds on both counts.

“The Contestant” is a sales title at TIFF.

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