“Dark” documentaries like The Contestant, which had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), require a delicate balancing act. The horrific subject matter is undeniably part of the appeal, but the director must avoid leaning too heavily into lurid details. The audience needs to be entertained, sure—but without becoming an unwilling voyeur, and without causing further harm to those involved. In The Contestant, this challenge is complicated by the nature of the premise: This is a story about one unfortunate man who was essentially tormented for the sake of television ratings.
Clair Titley’s The Contestant, which is set to open this year’s DOC NYC programme tomorrow, continued my unofficial TIFF tradition of seeking out stories popularized via online discourse. Last year was the Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne thriller The Good Nurse, based on the serial killer Charles Cullen. Although I hadn’t realized it before I snagged a screening, the story is well-tread territory in YouTube’s true-crime corner.
This year, there were two must-see titles in this unlikely category: Dumb Money and The Contestant. The former is a moderate-budget, Columbia Pictures comedy starring Paul Dano, which mines the recent viral “Gamestop squeeze” story (aka “Gamestonk”) as its source material. This was one of the buzziest titles at the festival, thanks to the mix of talent, imminent wide release, and visibility. (Between news stories, video essays and documentaries, did the story ever fall out of public interest?) The latter, The Contestant, was much more of a hidden gem. The average TIFF-er (not to be confused with TIFFR) is less likely to be familiar with this story than that of Dumb Money. Yet, both reflect real-life, once-in-a-lifetime events that only happened because of a very specific, and bizarre, set of circumstances.
A Life In Prizes
The Contestant is a documentary about a reality TV program that feels more like a hackneyed conceit from Black Mirror than a hit program from the late ’90s. From 1998 until 2002, the popular Japanese network Nippon TV aired a reality show series called Susunu! Denpa Shōnen (a pun that doesn’t really translate in English). The series was a “challenge” show that placed a participant—typically an aspiring comedian looking for a big break—in some sort of desperate, horrific circumstance. The Contestant focuses on one season, Denpa Shōnen teki Kenshō Seikatsu, or Denpa Shonen: A Life in Prizes, which saw Tomoaki Hamatsu spend 15 months alone in a room, naked, and surviving on dog food—all while unknowingly being the star of a new, hit series.
A Life in Prizes had a sadistic, almost dystopian premise. Hamatsu did not know the show’s true nature when he was blindfolded, transported, and left alone in a room. Producers stripped him of all possessions (including clothing) and instructed him that he would need to “win” his freedom by entering sweepstakes contests. He was not told the extent to which he was being filmed; as Hamatsu says in the documentary, he was under the impression that any footage may or may not be used for television. Not only was the show airing regularly on Nippon TV, but a 24-hour livestream was available online, capturing his every moment.
Nasubi the Eggplant
There’s a reason why Nasubi’s story is so popular among “dark storytelling” channels on YouTube. Just when A Life in Prizes hits a new ethical low, The Contestant reveals another cruel twist. Titley’s attention to detail builds momentum as the doc goes on, peeling back layer after layer of exploitation and cruelty at the hands of successful TV producer, Toshio Tsuchiya.
For example, Hamatsu was bullied as a young child because of his facial structure, earning the nickname “Nasubi,” which means eggplant. The show seemingly reveled in this, with onscreen captions poking fun at his “long” jaw, and an eggplant graphic used to cover his genitals. As a result, Hamatsu became popularly known in Japan as “Nasubi,” and the moniker has stuck for his entire career. When Hamatsu was literally starving because he had won little food, producers arranged for a food delivery person to “accidentally” go to the apartment by mistake, simply to tease him and capture his reaction.
The TIFF description of The Contestant by Thom Powers notes, “Before the onslaught of reality television in the West, there was an ominous harbinger in Japan of what was to come in our oversharing-obsessed culture.” This thesis—the voyeuristic impulse that makes reality TV such a compelling, if corrupting, genre—underscores the narrative Clair Titley crafts in this irresistible documentary. The Contestant is constantly demonstrating to audiences why A Life in Prizes was so successful, revealing the many ways that audiences and Hamatsu were manipulated by the show’s production.
The Contestant offers a warning in the age of social media
It’s impossible not to watch the documentary and reflect on how much of today’s highly online culture is a natural successor to A Life in Prizes. Social media has irreparably blurred the line between the personal and the private. How many millionaire vloggers owe their wealth and success to posting daily YouTube videos about their personal lives? According to studies from the last few years, youths overwhelmingly aspire to become YouTubers or Kid Influencers. The “oversharing” Powers references is not going away, and yet Titley’s documentary serves as a poignant reminder of just how harmful that lack of privacy can be.
While I was already familiar with much of the history behind A Life in Prizes, Titley’s interviews with Hamatsu and Tsuchiya present a rich, nuanced retrospective, two decades removed from the original phenomenon. The Contestant is so much more than a documentary about one man’s exploitation. It’s a story that humanizes someone whose humanity was callously and publicly stripped away. It’s a narrative that places equal importance on what happened in the years after the show aired, refusing to define Hamatsu by the humiliating experience that made him famous. Most importantly though, it’s an optimistic call for compassion, demonstrating the power of forgiveness and the importance of community.