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Thoroughly Compelling and Equally Disturbing – The Contestant – Raindance 2024 (Film Review)

2 min read
Tomoaki Hamatsu in The Contestant

With the true crime documentary obsession of the last decade ushering in an increase in bizarre real-life stories playing out on our screens, very few of them stick with you. There is sometimes too much of a good thing, and as such, each life-changing tale fails to make a lasting, meaningful impact on a viewer as it falls from our memories just as quickly as we watched it. That is, until, you watch the thoroughly compelling and equally disturbing The Contestant, screening at this year’s Raindance Film Festival.

Just as common as outrageous documentaries on our modern soapboxes is reality TV, and The Contestant explores its darker side in a way none of its contemporaries have. It follows the true story of Tomoaki Hamatsu, also known as Nasubi, an ordinary Japanese man who was left naked in a small room with only a radio, a telephone, a pen and paper, and a collection of magazines for a year. The televised event, A Life In Prizes, tasked Nasubi to remain in complete isolation and survive only on prizes he won through radio and magazine competitions. Despite its barbaric premise, A Life In Prizes ran for 15 months and attracted a whopping 30 million viewers a week who could watch Nasubi 24/7 — completely unbeknownst to its isolated star.

The Contestant retells the history of the show, before twisting into something thoroughly disturbing and not letting its foot off the gas for the remainder of the documentary. It offers a scathing critique on our obsession with reality TV – something many may expect before tuning in – but it’s also an emotional look at basic human needs, connection, and socialisation and what happens to a person when they’re denied as much, something that many experience without being involved in a warped game show.

The documentary never feels like it’s over-wrought with information or dragged out for effect, rather information is given enough time to be digested without leaving too little to keep an audience engaged. Nasubi’s survival story is nothing short of inspirational as his heartbreaking descent into starvation, hair loss, and paranoia play out in a giddying montage. The true extent of his abuse and humiliation feels almost impossible to grasp, and The Contestant deals with it in a manner that doesn’t add further insult to injury.

The film feels almost too bizarre to believe, and yet entirely in the realm of possibility in a world where so much of our lives, willingly or not, is broadcast to others. The Contestant can make you laugh and cry all in one quick run-time – possibly simultaneously – as Nasubi juggles his comedic outward persona and inner turmoil, all while being watched by millions in real-time against his knowledge. Unforgettable is a phrase often thrown around, but The Contestant will stick with you long after viewing.

The Contestant plays Raindance Film Festival 2024 on June 26.