The Contestant (2024) Movie Review – A documentary on revolution or cruelty?

Revolutionary or Cruelty?

Have you ever wondered where the line is drawn when it comes to reality shows? In this new Hulu documentary following one of the first reality shows in Japan, you will find yourself asking this question all the time. The Contestant is a movie detailing what happened to Tomoaki Hamatsu aka Nasubi who was tricked into appearing in a hit Japanese show called ‘Denpa Shonen: A Life in Prizes’. 

‘Denpa Shonen: A Life in Prizes’ was a Japanese TV show created by producer Toshio Tsuchiya. The show followed the story of Nasubi, who was isolated for 15 months and had to survive solely by winning coupons. Nasubi was stripped of his clothes and left to live in a small studio, relying only on the luck of the coupon gods.

He endured immense mental anguish and fatigue for several months while fighting to stay alive. Little did he know that millions of Japanese viewers were watching the show for entertainment purposes. It turns out that Toshio had kept Nasubi in the dark about the fact that the show was being live-streamed and that he was a participant in a human psychology experiment.

As you watch the clips from the now-infamous show and listen to both Nasubi and Toshio, you start to understand the injustice of it all. Director Clair Titley’s documentary, The Contestant, provides candid interviews with both men and immediately, you notice a stark difference between the two.

Nasubi comes across as a mere pawn in the show’s twisted game, while Toshio tries to excuse his cruelty in the name of revolutionising television. While Nasubi wallowed in solitude, his mental health declining, Toshio was rejoicing at the show’s success. The experience came at a considerable cost for Nasubi and gains for Toshio. 

Admittedly, Toshio recognises his role as the “devil,” but it is hard to grasp his bizarre vision. On the other hand, Nasubi is charming, and his struggle pulls at your heartstrings as he looks back at his experience on the show. He was simply a desperate comedian lured into a reality show.

He is not the only one; millions of viewers were also unsuspectingly duped to watch the show. It created a parasocial relationship with the audience by portraying Nasubi as someone to root for. The audience only saw the positive aspects and wanted Nasubi to succeed.

The Contestant gains momentum in the first half but then loses steam as Nasubi finally learns the truth. It fails to capture the emotional impact he underwent even after the show.

The documentary loses the plot of why Nasubi’s story is important even in this era. Most of us are used to seeing the most unhinged moments in reality shows but things were different those days. Back in the late 90s, such shows were hardly existent. People were unaccustomed to them, and there was a sense of novelty surrounding them.

The documentary also loses its impact as it fails to acknowledge the unethical treatment Nasubi endured during his confinement. He had not signed any contract or agreed to have his naked body exposed to the world. He certainly did not sign up to lose 15 months of his life.

Instead, the movie drifts away from the issue and focuses on Nasubi’s life after the show ended, trying to portray a positive outcome. However, even after all these years, he still carries the emotional wounds of his experience. He used to admire Hoishi but he could not get over what he had to go through because of him.

The Contestant is a documentary that illuminates the questionable actions that people in the movie industry have gotten away with in the past. It also highlights the manipulative nature of reality shows. The only drawback is the narrow approach to the ending, which limits the potential impact of the documentary. 

Read More: Where is Tomoaki Hamatsu (Nasubi) now?

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  • Verdict - 6/10

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