The Contestant Film Review Reviewed by Trish Connelly

When it comes to reality television, how much is actual reality? And how far are some people truly willing to go? In 1998, Japanese television producer Toshio Tsuchiya crafted a reality show where one contestant would start off in an empty room void of resources, filling out hundreds of magazine sweepstakes to win what they needed to survive. Tomoaki Hamatsu (nicknamed Nasubi, translating to ‘eggplant’, based on the shape of his long face) eagerly enters the competition, however remains unaware that every one of his actions in the 15 months proceeding is broadcasted to the general public. Having to give up every article of clothing and left with no food, Nasubi’s demeanor starts from eager and animated to desperate and depressed. Clair Titely’s The Contestant is an intimate look at how far just one producer will go to depict ‘reality television’ as well as how far it can go to break one man’s spirit and humanity.



An aspiring comedian, Nasubi eagerly took on the challenge he was faced with. Despite being able to leave his solitary confinement and the show at any time, Nasubi continues on the trek for over a year, gradually losing his mental, physical and emotional stability. Some viewers might argue that there’s no one to blame but Nasubi himself, yet it feels important to mention that he was misled in terms of how much of his life in the coming months were to be televised, as well as being put in such dire and isolating conditions that it becomes difficult to separate reality from fiction. The show conveniently left out much of of Nasubi’s depressive and suicidal episodes, instead almost functioning as a comedy show, with the audience’s laugh track over what looks to be humorous dances and monologues. Being able to pick and choose which segments the public gets to see alters the effect of the grueling hours of starvation, boredom, loneliness and mental breakdowns that inevitably take place in solitary confinement for every hour of every day. Understanding the show and its circumstances, one can’t help but think of the age-old Stanford Prison Experiment study in which situational and authoritative influences can massively contribute to an individual’s psyche and breakdown. 


Not only did the TV show have profound consequences on Nasubi while he was in the competition, but inevitably had a ripple effect after his ‘escape’ from the series as well. In the documentary’s interviews, he describes feeling disassociated, unable to look people in the eye and struggling to find purpose in his life. Crafted several years after The Real World aired on live television yet prior to shows like Jersey Shore and Survivor, The Contestant gives us an inside lens into the subject of the show, projecting less of a ‘scripted’ experience than the latter but more of an extreme experience than the former. However, Titely’s documentary leaves little in the way of deeper psychological insight, exploring a myriad of ethical questions at a very base level. If we are to take away any kind of message, The Contestant is a cautious reminder that reality TV may be served to us in what looks to be an objective platter, yet invariably there’s always another reality taking place behind the camera lens.

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