‘Did he ever win any clothes?’ The Contestant’s big questions, answered


Hulu’s new documentary The Contestant is a lively watch, but also a deeply unnerving one. In 1998, Nasubi (meaning “eggplant,” a personal nickname turned stage name) agreed to live in a tiny one-room apartment, completely isolated from the world, for a segment on Japan’s extreme game show Susunu! Denpa Shōnen. He was allowed no food, clothing, or other personal possessions, except whatever he could win through magazine sweepstakes. Told to stay in the room until he’d won 1 million yen worth of prizes, he slowly starved, naked and alone, with his physical and mental health deteriorating. Then, when he finally reached his goal, the show’s producer, Toshio Tsuchiya, told him he had to do it all again, this time in Korea.

In a real-life spin on The Truman Show, Toshio was secretly filming and broadcasting footage of Nasubi, who earned a worldwide following of 17 million fascinated viewers, all while remaining completely unaware that he was being watched. Director Clair Titley tells his story through archival footage and new interviews, with Nasubi and Toshio both exploring what they remember about this early exercise in reality TV from 25 years ago, before Titley moves on to Nasubi’s attempts to reclaim his life in the years that followed.

Nasubi’s situation became worldwide news back in the late ’90s, but the news stories left a lot of questions behind. The Contestant answers many of them, like “How did Toshio find Nasubi for the show?” and “Why didn’t Nasubi just leave, since his door was never locked?” But the documentary creates some mysteries of its own. Polygon sat down with Titley and Nasubi to ask some of the questions we still wondered about after watching.

Why did Nasubi agree to be on Denpa Shōnen?

Image: Hulu/Everett Collection

Nasubi: I have this characteristic, different face. So I was bullied as a child. But instead of taking my future as a negative thing, I realized I can make it fun, and use this as a weapon, as a tool to make people laugh. And that’s something I learned, to survive. So I wanted to be an actor-comedian who makes people laugh, but not just with my facial structure.

There’s an actor, Kiyoshi Atsumi — he holds the Guinness World Record for the longest movie series with a single actor, called Otoko wa Tsurai yo. So I really looked up to him. And he has, like, a square face. He would always play the same characters, and he brought laughter and tears. So I imagined myself being somebody like that.

Didn’t Nasubi ever win any clothing?

Nasubi: I was entering contests for T-shirts and so on in the beginning. However, inside that room, you don’t really need clothes to survive, you know? You’re not going to die because of lack of clothing. So I was focusing on entering for edible things. Also, I needed to achieve the goal in prizes of 1 million yen, so I was entering contests for higher-priced stuff that I didn’t necessarily need.

Polygon: At one point in your stint in Korea, we do see you win a pair of pink shorts and try them on, but you never seem to wear them again. Were they uncomfortable?

Nasubi: They were wool pants! Usually you need underwear before you’d put those on, so it was very uncomfortable to wear them. And in the Korean room, they had warm flooring, so it wasn’t really necessary to wear something warm.

Clair Titley: You did win the panties as well.

Nasubi: In Japan, I won some little panties. I tried to fit my body into that little tiny thing, and I saw myself in a video, and it was really humiliating. I said, “You know, I don’t have to put up with this thing. I don’t need it.”

How did Toshio talk Nasubi into continuing the show after he met his goal?

In archival footage from the Japanese game show Susunu! Denpa Shōnen, as seen in the documentary The Contestant, Nasubi, a tall, thin Japanese man, stands naked in the corner of a bare-walled room, using a square blue pillow to cover his genitals. He’s facing a rack of magazines and a table featuring a phone and huge stacks of plain white postcards.

Image: Hulu/Everett Collection

Nasubi: The TV edited [the footage] to make it look like I was just suddenly flown to Korea, but in reality, we had a discussion for several hours. He did not change his mind. He just wanted me to continue. I kept saying, “No, no, no.” But in the end, since he never gives in, I understood that the only way I could send him away, out of the room, was to say yes. Because otherwise, he would just keep pursuing me.

So if I could not get rid of him by saying no, I had to say yes, and put myself in a hell situation again. It was just one way to send him away. In other words, his passion, his determination to continue, was much stronger than my feelings or my opinions.

Titley: I also keep thinking, at this point, he’d been worn down so much. He was malnourished.

Nasubi: The strength of my heart was gone. Everything was broken inside of me. So I wasn’t really myself. I was in a different world. Physically and mentally, I was broken completely.

Why doesn’t The Contestant ever bring Nasubi and Toshio back together?

Titley: Early ideas for the film were that we were going to get them together. We were going to go on a road trip — all sorts of ideas. It didn’t feel like it was, in the end, part of the story. We finished the story at a certain point, and it didn’t feel like there was going to be this, kind of, cliché moment where everything was forgiven. It’s not really that kind of a relationship.

They’ve seen each other on and off, so it wouldn’t have been a big reveal. They’ve bumped into each other, because they’re both in the entertainment industry. It was obviously something we considered, but it didn’t feel like it was going to have the impact we would have thought.

How does Nasubi feel about watching The Contestant and reliving these events?

Japanese comedian Nasubi, naked and with a huge pouf of wild hair, grins as he holds up a box full of the bags of dog food he’s about to eat on the game show Susunu! Denpa Shōnen, as seen in the documentary The Contestant

Image: Hulu/Everett Collection

Nasubi: I never expected there would be such a documentary like this. Facing my past, because I had to deal with the trauma from it, wasn’t an easy task. For me, it was hard. But I feel like by using my past, that is one way I can find and rescue people. I can encourage people in a hard situation. So of course it took time, but my past was never wasted.

That’s how I feel right now. Because Toshio, the producer, apologized to me. Instead of holding anger and hate within myself, instead of holding this negative energy, I could free myself from it, and that will give me a new sense of freedom. And I found a way to rescue people who are in a hard situation like I was.

Also, I want to tell people: People can change. People do change. By being kind to people, even to the people that you have issues with, you can give hope.

How does Toshio feel about what he did to Nasubi on the show?

Titley: I don’t want to speak on his behalf, so this is very much my perspective. In the film, he doesn’t come right out and say,I’m sorry for everything that’s happened, I regret it” — not in so many words. Him participating in the film, I feel, was part of his apology, part of his redemption, maybe, in some way.

We didn’t have to persuade him to be in the film. It was actually Nasubi who approached him and said, “I’d like to make this film, and I’d like you to be a part of it.” While I don’t necessarily agree with the way Toshio conducted himself on that show, I do have a lot of respect for the way that he has been so honest with us, and so open. He’s a TV producer himself. He’s a documentary filmmaker. He’s not daft. He knows very well how a Western audience is going to interpret everything he’s done. He knows the power of manipulation of the media, of how we could do anything with his edit. And he was brutally honest with us. He didn’t hold back. And I certainly felt there was nothing that I couldn’t ask him that was out of bounds at any point. I’m quite grateful to him for that.


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