"The Contestant": The 9 wildest moments from Hulu's documentary about Japan's extreme reality show

A Hulu documentary takes us back to 1998, when a Japanese man didn't know his life was being broadcast to millions

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Staff Writer

Published May 8, 2024 12:29PM (EDT)

The Contestant (Disney)
The Contestant (Disney)

"I have always wanted to make people laugh. But there is a difference between making people laugh and being laughed at."

This is what Nasubi, a Japanese actor and comedian, tells viewers in a new documentary about the 15 months he spent naked in isolation, entering magazine sweepstakes to earn food. His ordeal, lasting from January 1998-April 1999, was broadcast to millions of people for the nascent and massively popular Japanese reality show, "Susunu! Denpa Shonen.”

Clair Titley's "The Contestant," which saw its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2023, was released on Hulu on May 2. The documentary traces more than a year in the life of the 22-year-old Tomoaki Hamatsu, better known as Nasubi, who leaves his home in rural Fukushima to pursue a career in entertainment in Tokyo. It's there that he entered a challenge segment of "Denpa Shonen" called "A Life in Prizes." 

"A Life in Prizes" is something of a predecessor to "The Truman Show" starring Jim Carrey, which was not released until later that year. "The Contestant" draws on archival footage of what audiences saw in real time, week to week: an unclothed, starving Nasubi's every movement captured on camera, which he was told would only potentially be aired once the challenge had concluded. The documentary also features exclusive interviews with Nasubi, his mother and sister, and Toshio Tsuchiya, the producer of “Susunu! Denpa Shonen" and the mastermind behind the game's deeply unsettling and strange premise. 

Here are the most unbelievable moments from "The Contestant":

Nasubi's showbiz dreams stemmed from being bullied
The ContestantTomoaki "Nabusi" Hamatsu in "The Contestant" (Disney)
The origin of Nasubi's nickname points to the social challenges he faced growing up. The word nasubi, which means eggplant in Japanese, was attributed to him at a young age by classmates who poked fun at his physically long face.
Being bullied made it difficult for Nasubi to make friends . . . until he made them laugh. "I learned as a child that it was the best way to protect myself," Nasubi says of entertaining others. "Maybe when I was six or seven, I noticed that by making people laugh, I could change my situation. That's when I realized my face could be a strength."
Towards the end of the documentary, as he speaks about the mental duress he suffered throughout his time alone, Nasubi likens the treatment he received by producing mastermind Tsuchiya and all those involved in "A Life in Prizes" to the bullying he endured as a child. "That people could push others to such limits, plunge them into despair. It's the same with bullying. I realized how cruel people can be."
Nasubi never signed a contract for "A Life in Prizes"
The ContestantTomoaki "Nabusi" Hamatsu in "The Contestant" (Disney)
Perhaps one of the more shocking technical aspects of "The Contestant" is the lack of legality in the challenge. Part of this had to do with the ruse used on Nasubi, who was told that the footage would likely not be broadcast. Tsuchiya in the documentary even admits that he lied to Nasubi about his intentions, calling himself "the devil."
Given that it was his first genuine foray into the world of comedy and entertainment, Nasubi tells us, he didn't mind being filmed since it would not be aired (or so he thought) .
"The reason Nasubi believed Tsuchiya that it wouldn't go on air is because he was so inexperienced," says Seiche Hirai, Nasubi's manager since 1998. "Rather than naive, he was gullible." 
Nasubi wasn't merely taken advantage of visually, either. Diaries that he kept throughout the entire duration of his time in isolation were copied and disseminated to the public, allowing viewers of the show to access his private thoughts and feelings. 
The eggplant emoji's phallic meaning may relate to Nasubi
The ContestantTomoaki "Nabusi" Hamatsu in "The Contestant" (Disney)
In contemporary times, the eggplant emoji has become colloquially representative of a way to reference male genitalia. According to Juliet Hindell, a former BBC News Correspondent in Tokyo during the 1990s, this meaning may have originated with Nasubi. 
Seeing as Nasubi was taped while entirely nude, the production crew for "A Life in Prizes" initially masked his genitalia with a large black dot in the broadcast footage. This method of concealment was quickly swapped for a cartoon eggplant in reference to Nasubi's name, but also which as Hindell points out, "has become parlance for penis."
Nasubi nearly succumbs to starvation
The ContestantTomoaki "Nabusi" Hamatsu in "The Contestant" (Disney)
At his peak, Nasubi estimated that he was filling out between 300 and 400 sweepstake postcards per day. In the first week of the show, however, he submitted more than 900 applications to no avail. Unable to collect any prizes on which he was supposed to survive on, Nasubi consumes nearly nothing for a stretch of days. "Obviously we couldn't let him die," Tsuchiya blithely observes, noting how the crew intermittently gave Nasubi crackers to sustain himself. 
Throughout "The Contestant," we are given a glimpse into the eclectic array of food and other inedible prizes Nasubi receives: rice that he must cook without a pot, bags of dog food, women's underwear, strawberries, a live lobster, a vacuum cleaner and more. 
The heavy toll on Nasubi's mental health
The ContestantTomoaki "Nabusi" Hamatsu in "The Contestant" (Disney)

“Being alienated from human contact for this long makes you absolutely long for human warmth," Nasubi says, acknowledging that he eventually began to feel "robbed of his spirit." 


We see clips of him dancing giddily and making silly faces in ostensibly high spirits; however, as Nasubi recounts his experience, it was simply evidence of a steadily unfurling mind, asserting that "being driven to the edge brought out a madness in me."


Nasubi's loneliness and emotional turmoil was compounded by the fact that Tsuchiya forbade members of the crew from ever interacting with him. Though the door to his room was never locked, Nasubi shares that over time, he lost the will to escape. "Psychologically you feel that rather than escaping or doing something radical, staying put, not causing trouble is the safest option," he says. "It’s a strange psychological state."

Nasubi wins his challenge but is forced into another
The ContestantTomoaki "Nabusi" Hamatsu in "The Contestant" (Disney)
Nasubi's completion of the game was contingent upon his earning one million yen worth of prizes. When he succeeds, Tsuchiya ambushes him while he's asleep with feigned congratulations, before flying him to Korea. Tsuchiya entices Nasubi with Korean barbeque, fresh kimchi and a trip to an amusement park before sending him hurtling back to "rock bottom," in the producer's own words. Nasubi finds himself in yet another room with magazines and postcards, but this time in Korea. Tsuchiya orders Nasubi to strip once more, and over the course of three hours, manages to persuade him to partake in another round of the challenge.
It's at this point that Nasubi begins to truly unravel — feeling utterly wracked with loneliness and despair, and certain that death is his only recourse, he even contemplates suicide. Ultimately, he says, "I didn’t have the courage to end my life so I decided to keep going till the end”
Tsuchiya tricks Nasubi for one last public hurrah
The ContestantTomoaki "Nabusi" Hamatsu in "The Contestant" (Disney)
Nasubi eventually finishes the Korea challenge, but is unaware of where he is being brought upon his departure from Korea. He fears the worst – that he'll enter into yet another challenge that would extend his isolation and loneliness. Though his trials and tribulations are finally nearing an end, he is wholly unaware of this fact, as he is blindfolded and fitted with earmuffs each time he is removed from his room.
Tsuchiya brings him back to the "Denpa Shonen" studios in front of a live crowd, on which a false room that is identical to the one for "A Life in Prizes" is constructed. He leads Nasubi inside, and after he removes his blindfold, automatically strips in resignation and sits down for another sweepstakes challenge. That's when the room's phony walls give way, revealing his true location in front of the laughing audience.
While Tsuchiya maintains a smugness around the footage of the show's finale — he tells viewers that he thought it would "go down in history" — Nasubi is visibly stunned. He heartrendingly tells the show's hosts, "My house fell down," an observation that is met by a sea of laughter. 
“It was impossible for me to comprehend it all," Nasubi says in "The Contestant." 
"I lost my faith in humanity"
The ContestantTomoaki "Nabusi" Hamatsu in "The Contestant" (Disney)
The fallout from the back-to-back challengse is bleak for Nasubi. He recounts how his heart was enduringly "wrapped in loneliness" and how he struggled to interact with others normally. The show, he alleged, did nothing for him in terms of teaching him about the comedic profession.
"All I gained from 'A Life in Prizes' were the skills to survive 'A Life in Prizes'," Nasubi says grimly. As for adjusting to his bizarrely and unethically acquired fame, Nasubi states that it was impossible to keep up with people's expectations of what they had seen onscreen. 
A "big black hole" is etched in Nasubi's heart as he suffers an existential crisis and grapples with his sense of personhood.
Nasubi heals by helping victims of natural disasters
The ContestantTomoaki "Nabusi" Hamatsu in "The Contestant" (Disney)
In 2011, the Tōhoku region of Japan faces a devastating tsunami and radioactive fallout in the wake of a high-magnitude earthquake. Nasubi decides that he wants to climb Mt. Everest in honor of those affected in Fukushima, which is badly hit by the natural disaters. When he embarks on the trip with his mountain guide Kenji Kondo and a hiking group, further calamity strikes. An earthquake in Nepal triggers an avalanche, which pummels the group's base camp and claims the lives of 19 people. 
Nasubi escapes unscathed, and elects to remain at the camp for weeks on end to assist in the rescue efforts. “I realized that by helping those around you, you can find deep resources of inner strength,” he says. When Tsuchiya contacts Nasubi and offers to help fund his second attempt at the Everest summit, Nasubi acquiesces, despite still holding a deep-seated resentment toward the producer. As Nasubi discloses in the final minutes of "The Contestant," he feels he gained "something significant" from Tsuchiya and "A Life in Prizes": “I realized that humans cannot exist alone."

"The Contestant" is streaming on Hulu.



By Gabriella Ferrigine

Gabriella Ferrigine is a staff writer at Salon. Originally from the Jersey Shore, she moved to New York City in 2016 to attend Columbia University, where she received her B.A. in English and M.A. in American Studies. Formerly a staff writer at NowThis News, she has an M.A. in Magazine Journalism from NYU and was previously a news fellow at Salon.

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Fukushima Hulu Japan List Nasubi Reality Tv The Contestant The Truman Show Toshio Tsuchiya