Naked, isolated and surviving on dog food: this was the terrifying first reality television program made in Japan in the 90s

Naked, isolated and surviving on dog food: this was the terrifying first reality television program made in Japan in the 90s
Naked, isolated and surviving on dog food: this was the terrifying first reality television program made in Japan in the 90s

Image source, Hulu

Caption, Nasubi appeared on Japanese television in 1998, before the film “The Truman Show” and “Big Brother.”
Article information
  • Author, Steven McIntosh
  • Role, BBCNews
  • 23 minutes

In 1998, a Japanese man was stripped naked and left alone in a nearly empty apartment as part of a reality show challenge.

Tomoaki Hamatsu, known as Nasubi, was left with only a pen, some blank postcards, a telephone and a shelf full of magazines.

But he wasn’t there to read. The concept of the show was to see if a human being could survive only with the prizes that he had to win through tests or by lottery.

To win, the value of the prizes he accumulated had to reach a certain threshold: 1 million yen, about $7,600 at the time.

It was stipulated that would not come out for 15 months, leading to a gradual descent into depression and mania, driven by hunger and isolation.

Nearly three decades later, Nasubi’s ordeal has been revived in a new documentary titled “The Contestant.”

“I came across his story when I was working on a different project and got lost down one of those Internet rabbit holes,” recalls Clair Titley, the film’s director.

“But I discovered that no one had really talked about Nasubi’s story in depth. I had a lot of questions, so I contacted him with the premise of making a documentary about his experience.”

Image source, Hulu

Caption, Nasubi participated in thousands of contests to win prizes that helped him survive.

Nasubi, who had been selected at random in an open audition, knew he was being filmed, but the explanation given to him about where the recordings would end was vague and left him with the impression that it probably wouldn’t air.

In reality, the 22-year-old was gradually becoming one of the most important celebrities in the country as weekly updates on his progress became one of the most popular segments of the variety show “Denpa Shōnen.”

Most critics hated the show, but it attracted a large audience of young viewers.

The show began airing before the release of the movie “The Truman Show,” starring Jim Carrey, about a man who doesn’t know his life is being broadcast on television.

Pioneer in the world

It would be another year before “Big Brother” premiered in the Netherlands, marking the beginning of a whole new era of reality television.

But despite being a pioneer in this new television format, “A Life in Awards,” as the program segment was known, is not well known outside of Japan.

“I think people have heard more about the show in the last decade, since YouTube usage really exploded,” Titley tells BBC News. “But in the ’90s, it was never shown outside of Japan and South Korea.”

Nasubi, an aspiring comedian at the time, He knew few details about what challenge he would face before it began.

They left him in a room without windows, without clothes or basic necessities – not even toilet paper– and without contact with the outside world.

Image source, Hulu

Caption, In the documentary Nasubi reflects on his terrible experience almost three decades later.

“The Contestant” features new interviews with both Nasubi and the producer who planned the program, Toshio Tsuchiya.

They also speak to those involved in covering the programme, including a former BBC correspondent based in Japan.

But much of the story is in the show itself, and viewers of the documentary follow Nasubi’s progress in the same way that television viewers did in the ’90s.

Titley says she and her team reviewed the original footage “carefully” to remove much of the original effects.

“All the footage was covered in Japanese graphics, had Japanese narration, canned laughter, sound effects. “It was a cacophony of noise and graphics,” he explains. “So we tried to make an English-speaking audience understand what it was like.”

A chronicle of a media phenomenon

The team covered the Japanese graphics with English equivalents and recreated the audio as accurately as possible. An English-speaking narrator was hired to translate the original comments.

The resulting documentary has already premiered on Hulu in the US, and critics are as fascinated by the story as they are horrified by Nasubi’s ordeal.

“The Contestant” is “both a car accident that you can’t help but look at as an accusation of complicity against the viewer,” said David Fear of the magazine Rolling Stone.

“A chronicle of a media phenomenon, a milestone of reality shows and a psychological nightmare presented as entertainment“It’s the kind of documentary where you’re aware that what you’re witnessing is 100% true, and you still can’t believe what you’re seeing.”

Image source, Hulu

Caption, The show’s producer says there was a chance Nasubi would have died if he hadn’t won rice.

David Ehrlich of the magazine IndieWiredescribed the original recordings as ““so hypnotically sadistic” that newer footage can’t compete with it.

“None of the film’s retrospective interviews, however sincere and thoughtful, are as gripping as the raw video of Nasubi’s ordeal“, said.

As the show progressed, Nasubi was successful in many of the contests she entered, but the prizes she won weren’t always of much use.

Rice and dog food

Among them were tires, golf balls, a tent, a globe, a teddy bear and tickets to “Spice World: The Movie.”

The fact that was physically weakening, little seemed to worry the producers, one of whom suggests in the documentary that Nasubi might have died if he hadn’t won rice in one of the prizes.

He later also gained sugary drinks and dog food, on which he survived for several weeks.

About 15 million viewers tuned in to watch the show.

Nasubi remained naked the entire time, because he never gained an item of clothing (his genitals are covered by a floating eggplant emoji added by the producers).

Image source, Joe Short (@joeshortetc)

Caption, From left to right: producers of the new documentary film Andee Ryder and Megumi Inman with Nasubi and director Clair Titley.

The apartment door was unlocked and, in theory, Nasubi he was allowed to go out whenever he wanted. So why didn’t he do it?

“I think there are many reasons,” says Titley. “One is that he is very stoic, and that is due to where he came from, Fukushima, and his parents, who were very strict.”

“He is also a very loyal person. He didn’t want to get into trouble, and he was very young and naive. He’s still incredibly confident now. And there’s also that Japanese samurai spirit of ‘I will prevail and endure.'”

A very cruel show

Nearly three decades later, Nasubi described the program as “cruel” and said there was “no happiness or freedom.”

“Maybe [se mostraron] three or five minutes of my life a week. And that bit was edited to highlight my happiness when I won [un premio]”he told the portal deadline.

“Of course, viewers would say, ‘Oh, look, he’s doing something fun and something he enjoys…’ But “Most of my life there was suffering.”

And yet in the documentary he is not seen as bitter about this experience, and Titley says his impression was that “he is in a very positive place now.”

“When people ask him if he regrets it, he always says that, although he wouldn’t want to do it again, He wouldn’t be the person he is now if he hadn’t participated.“, says.

Image source, Hulu

Caption, Nasubi was amazed when he was greeted by a live audience in the television studio who cheered his name once the show ended.

Nasubi was eventually freed through a trick in which he was taken to a new fake room before the walls fell to reveal that he was actually in the live studio in front of an audience cheering his name.

The documentary also follows Nasubi after his releaseshowing his efforts to use his newfound fame for good causes, finally providing him with a sense of fulfillment.

Titley says Nasubi felt it was the right time to revisit his story, adding that “maybe he had made peace with what had happened.”

“I would love for people to reflect on their own relationships with social media and reality TV,” Titley says, “and how complicit we all are as viewers and consumers.”

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