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Sick Entertainment: The Contestant at TIFF 2023

(Photo: TIFF)

Directed by: Clair Titley

Cast: Tomoaki Hamatsu "Nasubi", Toshio Tsuchiya

Human beings are strange, contradictory creatures. We hold ourselves to a standard of decency in daylight. Whether this civility is genuine varies from person to person; however, there are notable instances where the masses publicly reject decency. Clair Titley’s documentary The Contestant is a brutal, confrontational retelling of how much one man's prolonged suffering became cheap entertainment for millions.

In the late 90s, Japanese reality television prided itself on pushing boundaries of both taste and its participants’ health. Extreme endurance challenges were popular before infamous producer Toshio Tsuchiya locked 23-year-old aspiring comedian Tomoaki Hamatsu in a small room for fifteen months with nothing but bare necessities and magazine contests. Bare necessities did not include clothes, either. The show was titled A Life in Prizes because Hamatsu, whose nickname was Nasubi (Japanese for eggplant) because of his long, eggplant-like face, had to survive off of his contest winnings. His luck determined everything. Notable wins included a live lobster, four car tires, and dog food that kept him alive for a few weeks. He needed to win a million yen—over $9000 CAD today—worth of prizes to earn his freedom. Unbeknownst to Nasubi, over 15 million people tuned in to his mental and physical torture.

I was familiar with Nasubi’s story through several YouTube documentaries—monotone internet personality Penguinz0’s 38-minute video has over 18.7 million views at time of writing. Unlike any online content, The Contestant features candid interviews with Nasubi, his sister and mother, and, most hauntingly, the producer Tsuchiya himself. “I am the devil,” Tsuchiya states as he reflects back on his work. The film's slick production and editing heavily incorporate audiences’ reactions to the show, laugh tracks included. The editing style captured a pastiche of Japanese television, such as exaggerated narrator reactions and gaudy text on screen. All combined added a thick sense of inhumanity. Nasubi kept journals during the challenge that even became bestsellers. Titley questions viewers’ morality for supporting the show. Is Tshuchiya sick for facilitating it, the audience for watching it, or both?

Sitting in the Scotiabank Theatre with other Toronto International Film Festival attendees, I wondered if a show like A Life of Prizes would be as successful today as it was in the 90s. I got my answer at home when I got a recommendation for one of Nikocado Avocado’s videos. Avocado is a mukbang content creator—a video genre based around people eating excessive amounts of food—with 3.67 million subscribers. He slowly kills himself for money and attention. And then I remembered shows like My 600lb Life and Teen Mom. They trade their pain and humiliation for our attention. Unlike Nasubi, people in those shows consent to the transaction.

A cynic would say humans love watching others in pain, while an optimist would argue that these shows are compelling because viewers want to see these people overcome their struggles. What a perfect snapshot of the human experience that viewers can experience vicariously from the comfort of their couches. Exhilaration filled the air when Nasubi beat the challenge and continued to build when the film explored his inspirational life beyond the show that I will not spoil. I cried during the interviews with his mom and sister, but the heaviest part of the film is the cold silence after Nasubi wonders, “Was it worth it?” I don’t think it was, but it did hold my attention the whole time, distracting me from my relative mediocrity.

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