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The Contestant movie review & film summary (2024)

The Contestant movie review & film summary (2024)

It’s a strange time capsule to revisit. Still, in the new Hulu documentary “The Contestant,” director Clair Titely attempts to make sense of this bizarre entry in TV history by exploring it as a harbinger of things to come: the explosion of reality TV, live-streaming celebrities, and parasocial relationships with onscreen strangers. 

Guided by candid interviews with Nasubi, his family and friends, and even some of the TV crew, “The Contestant” recounts his humble beginnings in scenic Fukushima, discovering comedy as a way to avoid bullies before leaving home for Tokyo where he lands an audition for “Denpa Shonen,” an early entry for stunt reality television in the spirit of “The Amazing Race” and “Survivor.” Looking to diversify their premise, they choose Nasubi to survive solely on magazine contest prizes — ,isolated from his loved ones, stripped bare of his belongings, and unwittingly filmed at all hours of the day and night with the promise they would not show everything. 

“Denpa Shonen: A Life in Prizes” was the brainchild of TV producer Toshio Tsuchiya, who quickly establishes himself as a kind of unrepentant bad guy in the narrative, coldly pushing Nasubi into uncomfortable situations time after time. Although technically Nasubi could have left the show at any moment, he threw himself into the challenge as a hungry young man looking to prove himself, learning to survive on meager supplies and repurposing objects. His obsession with winning keeps him in these conditions for a year and three months. 

Watching the footage condensed into a much more manageable hour-and-a-half documentary, I can see the appeal and curiosity of an unsuspecting public who might not have known he wasn’t in on the joke. Like Jim Carrey’s character on “The Truman Show” (which the documentary notes came out later that year), he was a seemingly ordinary man made famous, a new kind of celebrity who didn’t hail from a wealthy family, arts or sports background. 

The novelty of watching each other was still pretty fresh at the time as opposed to today’s saturated landscape of Twitch streamers, Instagram Live hosts, and infinite social media feeds. People rooted for him because they could see themselves in him or were curious about what he would do next. The question of “What would I do in this scenario?” keeps audiences hooked on the drama and spurs conversation about what he did right or wrong. Poor Nasubi had well over a year to answer that question for himself live in front of a captivated audience of millions. 

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