Japan can call itself an innovator in the reality TV and game show world. Shows like Takeshi's Castle and Za Gaman garnered more viewers abroad than they did domestically, because of their complete novelty to foreign viewers. Physical challenge shows are a Japanese invention, and every American attempt at the genre from Nickelodeon's Double Dare to American Ninja Warrior has had a clear Japanese influence.
The success of these shows and others has, however, given Japan a reputation for televised cruelty. In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer and the family go on a Japanese game show to win plane tickets back to America, only to have to undergo torture on camera then retrieve the tickets from a volcano.
ABC created a reality show called "I Survived a Japanese Game Show," which put contestants through a fake physical challenge show-within-a-show. Japan had a reputation for extreme physical challenge TV, and from 1998 to 2002, a show called Susunu! Denpa Shonen (a punning follow-up to 1992-1998's Susume! Denpa Shonen) took up that role and tried to take it just a few steps further. On the show, you could see two men try to escape from a secluded island with one of those swan paddle boats. You could see a Chinese comedian hitchhike from South Africa to Norway. And, most famously, you could see "Prize Contest Life" starring a man named Nasubi.
Life on Camera
"Prize Contest Life," the show I want to talk about today, gathered a large roster of amateur comedians looking for a way to break into national television, and, in place of a normal audition, asked them to cast lots. A lanky Fukushima-born comedian named Nasubi ("eggplant," after his long, oddly-shaped head) won the lottery, and was immediately taken to a car and blindfolded. When the blindfold came off, he was in a small apartment room. Behind the camera, the show producer told him to take off his clothes, all of them, and hand them over. Only then, after he is naked and stranded, is Nasubi told what the show's premise is: "Can a man live on winning sweepstakes alone?" He laughed, and the door was shut.
Here is a complete inventory of Nasubi's apartment at the start of the show:
- a shower
- a radio
- a telephone
- a gas burner
- a sink
- a large rack of magazines
- a giant stack of postcards
- a small table
- a single cushion.
The apartment walls were wired with cameras and a portable microphone hung around Nasubi's neck. Besides those things, he had to win everything he needed in a prize contest, and he would be released after he had won a million yen (~$10,000 USD) worth of prizes (based on the alternate cash prize customarily offered in sweepstakes, which unfortunately means that a number of lower-value items Nasubi won were worth nothing, due to the lack of a cash alternative).
An edited summary of Nasubi's experience would appear on Denpa Shonen for 8-10 minutes a week over the next 15 months, a dark comedy segment about a life spent writing letters (roughly 1,400 a week) and answering the door.
Every episode shows Nasubi waking up, telling the camera what day it is, writing sweepstakes letters (he quickly gives up on trying to win radio contests and instead devotes his time to magazine write-in sweepstakes), then receiving a series of delivered prize winnings which range from life-saving to worthless. The first episode shows him answer the door for a ramen delivery sent to the wrong address, a taunting moment for someone who ostensibly has no food for the first two weeks (viewers have to assume he received some food off-camera to get through this opening period). Once he finally wins a bag of rice, he realizes he has no pot to cook it in, so he experiments with eating rice raw before eventually finding a way to cook the rice over his gas burner in a packet of fiber jelly he had won the previous week.
Rice was always a welcome prize, but the show's dark comedy comes mostly from the prizes Nasubi wins that do nothing to improve his desperate situation. Famously, in one of the first episodes he wins a bicycle, a prize that briefly excites him then throws him into a depression. What use is the bicycle for him when he has no clothes and the show may not even allow him to leave his apartment? He cycles the pedals a few times, then puts it in the corner of his room, where it will stay (and follow him, as he is moved from apartment to apartment by the production staff before fans can deduce where he lives).
In a later episode, he is extremely excited to win a television, his best prize yet. But when he plugs it in, he realizes the apartment has no antenna or cable connection, and every channel comes in as static. Months and months later, he eventually wins a VCR, and two VHS tapes, then eventually even a PlayStation One and the train simulator Densha de Go!. He plays his new game console for three days straight before realizing that it is taking too much time away from his letter writing, so he shelves it along with all his other useless prizes.
Because of the immediate shock of having his clothes taken away, one of Nasubi's first goals was to win some clothes so he wouldn't have to make his TV debut fully nude. He applied to win an apron in the first episode, but he did not win that particular sweepstakes and, in fact, he would never win any serious article of clothing. He wins a pair of lingerie panties early on (which are too small even for his spindly thin frame), then eventually a pair of formal shoes (which fit perfectly but don't see an awful lot of use), then much later a pair of too-small Adidas sneakers and a belt. So he simply goes more than a year without wearing clothes, with a floating picture of an eggplant blocking his privates for the viewers at home. During a short-lived experiment at streaming Nasubi 24 hours a day to internet viewers, a large staff had to be on hand to move the censorship eggplant as he moved around. After Nasubi was finally given his clothes back on day 335, he tried them on, decided they felt weird, then took them back off.
It was on that day 335 that Nasubi won a small bag of rice which pushed him over the million yen he needed to win the challenge. The producers gave him one last surprise: he was flown to Korea then told to win his airfare to come back to Tokyo. After four more months, Nasubi was finally taken back home, where he was put into one last apartment room. As he began to get settled, the room's walls collapsed outward, revealing him to a live audience who congratulated him on completing "Prize Contest Life." He happily waved with one hand while holding his cushion over his genitals with the other.
Behind the Scenes
It is impossible to tell just how much might be faked in "Prize Contest Life" and all the reality show contests of Denpa Shonen. The show has complete control over what it presents as "reality" and the perception of realness is vital to enjoying the astonishing things that happen in a segment like Nasubi's. Years before their Nasubi challenge, Denpa Shonen came under fire for reportedly flying their contestant from place to place while he was supposed to be hitchhiking across all of Eurasia (a theme they would use again when they had a man hitchhike across Africa then up to Norway). Viewers have asked "Did Nasubi really win dog food and inner tubes and four tires and lingerie without ever winning any real clothing for himself?" Nothing could have stopped the producers from sending Nasubi things he didn't win with the delivery man, or intercepting prizes he actually earned.
It is almost certain, however, that Nasubi didn't receive many breaks from any potential producer interference. He gets thinner, paler, hairier, and weirder as the show goes on, as his near-total isolation continued and he never took a step outside. Nasubi eventually revealed that he "thought of escaping several times," and "was on edge, especially toward the end." In an interview with video streaming site Hulu, the producer of Denpa Shonen said "[Nasubi] plunged into despair, but because he was naked and had no clothes, he couldn't even run to the police for help. Aside from the five minutes that Nasubi was able to interact with a delivery person, his 24 hours were spent writing out postcards by himself in a dead-silent room. Imagine the elation that overcame him during those valuable few minutes when he would feel his only connection to the outside world through talking to the delivery person and checking the contents of the packages he would receive. It was at that moment when he would burst with jubilation and even start dancing to express his happiness. It's in thrilling moments like these when we're given a glimpse into the true nature of humans." "Prize Contest Life" stands out for its especially cruel, psychologically torturous material, and there's only so much that could have been done off-camera to make it less than it appears.
In fact, you can watch a lot of the episodes on YouTube. Just do a search for "Nasubi" and you can see for yourself. Don't blame me if you end up losing the next couple hours of your life.
Life After "Prize Contest Life"
"Prize Contest Life" is an extreme example of the central premise of reality TV: Amateur actors (and even the occasional normal person) will undergo almost anything to become rich and famous. Nasubi gave an incredible amount for Denpa Shonen—15 continuous months of isolation—but what did he receive? Did he become rich and famous?
The answer is "sort of." The several volumes of Nasubi's Prize Contest Life Diary—which is constantly promoted, used, and voice acted within the show to provide an internal monologue for the solitary and therefore not always especially vocal Nasubi—reportedly sold well. He was nationally famous while his segment was running (Denpa Shonen reached 17 million viewers at its peak, with Nasubi marching at the front) but his fame faded quickly. He earned minor roles in several films and TV dramas at the national level, perhaps the most notable being his role in Kamen Rider W as Watcherman, an otaku blogger who rides a bicycle he won in a sweepstakes. But Nasubi can only really be called a celebrity in his home region of Fukushima, where he has done a number of shows and events.
Most recently, he attempted to climb Mount Everest to raise money for relief efforts after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and he has a new show called "Nasubi's Question" which educates viewers on radiation-related topics. Denpa Shonen did not make him a fabulously successful person, but it seems to have given him enough exposure to give him a comfortable acting career and a public role in his home region.
To me, the show's cruelty is only justified if we assume that the producers are helping Nasubi behind the camera in ways we never see. For instance, if he really went the first two weeks with no food at all, as it is presented in the show, then I think everyone would agree that is too cruel to film. The show is rife with those kinds of iffy moral situations that make it simultaneously thrilling and kind of horrible: If, as the show claims, Nasubi never knew what he was in for until it happened, then surely 15 months of filmed solitary confinement is too cruel to be entertainment.