Private Project

The Contestant

The Contestant is the incredible true story of a man who lived for 15 months trapped inside a small room, naked, starving and alone… and completely unaware that his life was being broadcast on national TV in Japan, to over 15 million viewers a week.

In 1998, the same year the US film The Truman Show was released, and a couple of years before Big Brother was broadcast, an up and coming comedian named Nasubi was invited to an informal audition at a Japanese TV station.

He is randomly selected from a shortlist of other hopefuls and immediately taken to a car and blindfolded. The blindfold comes off - he is in a small apartment room with a well-stocked magazine rack. The show’s producer tells him to take off all his clothes and hand them over. Only then, naked and stranded, he tells Nasubi what the show’s premise is: “Can a man live on winning sweepstakes prizes alone?” The producer laughs, and the door is slammed shut. Nasubi will only be freed from the apartment after he wins 1 million yen, ($9,000) worth of prizes from the competitions in the backs of magazines. Until then, he must just hope that he can win enough sustenance to survive.

Nasubi spends one year and three months of his life trapped in this apartment, slowly losing his mind and at times coming close to starvation – unaware that, not only is the entire nation watching him, but that the diaries he is writing are bestsellers, he is the star of one of the world’s first internet live streams, and he has become a household name.

Nasubi inadvertently becomes Japan's national symbol for the spirit of ‘never giving up’. But when he is finally released, he struggles to settle into his new life and it takes a seismic event to help him find what actually completes him. The Contestant is an emotional and inspirational tale about the importance of connection, that also makes us question our voyeuristic relationship with the media.

Please note that this is a work in progress. It is picture locked but still needs Online, Music, Sound Design, GFX, Grade, and Sound Mix. Estimated completion date is July/August 2023.

  • Clair Titley
  • Clair Titley
  • Andee Ryder
    Rising Phoenix, McQueen
  • Ian Bonhôte
    Rising Phoenix, McQueen
  • Megumi Inman
  • Nainita Desai
    Original Music
    The Reason I Jump, For Sama
  • Rachel Meyrick
  • Katie Bryer
  • Mikul Eriksson
    Director of Photography
  • Dorothea Gibbs
    Line Producer
    Roger Waters: The Wall, My Husband The Cyborg
  • Nikki Weston
    Line Producer
  • James Harper
    Line Producer
  • Tomoaki Hamatsu
  • Toshio Tsuchiya
  • Project Type:
    Documentary, Feature
  • Runtime:
    1 hour 44 minutes
  • Completion Date:
    August 1, 2023
  • Production Budget:
    1,100,000 GBP
  • Country of Origin:
    United Kingdom
  • Country of Filming:
    Japan, United Kingdom
  • Language:
    English, Japanese
  • Shooting Format:
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
Director Biography - Clair Titley

Brought up in South and Southeast Asia, British director Clair Titley grew up watching Asia’s answer to MTV and visiting back-alley video shops to rent pirated copies of the latest western movies.

Her work taps into the quietly surreal moments of life, while often being a trojan horse for comment on the world around us. Themes of identity and self-discovery run through her films – what it means to be young, old or even just human.

Clair cut her teeth making oral history films for the BBC and Channel 4 in the UK, quickly gained a reputation as a filmmaker with a talent for interviewing and for unearthing untold angles. As well as a BAFTA nomination, she has been nominated for the Royal Television Society award for ‘Outstanding New Director’.

She has recently collaborated with producers Misfits Entertainment to develop, write and direct her first feature-length documentary, The Contestant. The film is one of just a dozen inaugural feature docs from leading independent studio MRC.

Add Director Biography
Director Statement

As a documentary filmmaker, I’m especially aware of the veracity of the saying that the truth is stranger than fiction. But the idea of a man being left naked and alone in an apartment while attempting to survive on competition prizes was certainly the craziest true story I had ever come across. The fact that it was done purely for the sake of entertainment, and that the protagonist had become a national celebrity without even knowing it, was so incredible to me that I was instantly hooked on making a film about it. I was intrigued: I wanted to dig under the surface of this surreal tale of a man effectively trapped inside one of the first ever reality TV shows.

I was already a Japanophile before embarking on this project – but I didn’t speak the language and as Nasubi spoke very little English, it was an unlikely friendship that developed in making this film. Despite the origins of his fame being born from an outlandish TV show that he unwittingly auditioned for – he was an accidental star and to this day he is not a natural limelight seeker. But he does feel that now, after 20 years, it is the right time to tell his story. I am humbled that he has trusted me to do so.

I find people want to talk endlessly about Nasubi and his role in Denpa Shonen when they first hear about it. In trying to make sense of what happened and why, they project their own theories of what it is all about - whether it be consent, privacy, celebrity culture, the power of the media, ideas of authenticity or simply how we treat fellow human beings in the name of entertainment. I personally started making this film believing that it was a film about forgiveness and about the relationship between oppressor and oppressed.

And while it is of course all of these things, in addressing my own Western bias I came to realise it is also so much more than these things. It is about the universal basic need for human connection – and the importance of connecting with others as we try to navigate our way through life.

Nasubi begins his journey, emerging from a bullied childhood, in search of connection, which he looks for in the entertainment industry. If people are laughing at you – why not make them laugh with you? But he quickly finds himself an unwitting pawn in a TV social experiment.

It is uncanny that both Nasubi and Toshio Tsuchiya (the TV show’s producer) had such similar upbringings – both their fathers were police officers which, in Japan, means that as a family they would have moved every few years. This had a profound effect on them both. I too moved often as a child (my father was in the army) and can really relate to this experience and how it can shape your world view. I can identify with Nasubi’s need for connection as a result of his childhood – and can recognize how Tsuchiya has dealt with that too – albeit in different ways.

As a TV producer, Tsuchiya became obsessed with trying to capture and ‘bottle’ raw human emotion. And to an extent he really does capture something truly unique on screen that to do this day hasn’t been rivalled. But of course at what cost? To what ends? And did he really capture what he intended on screen?

We had numerous challenges in making this film. First, there were no rushes from the show that still existed. So we were working with the finished episodes which were only the edited highlights showing Nasubi ‘cheerful’ – and these were covered in Japanese voice over, canned laughter, commentary (in Japanese) and a cacophony of on screen graphics telling the viewer what was happening every few seconds. I really wanted a western audience to understand and experience the immediacy of this onslaught of sight and sound, just as the original Japanese audience would have. However, to have left the footage as it was with only subtitles to navigate it, would have been too much for any audience to handle. As such we came up with a method of manipulating the footage by translating the graphics and dubbing the voice over (Fred Armisen’s voice now replaces the original narrator) in such a way that I hope means we are being as truthful as possible to the original show in essence.

The Contestant is an extraordinary ‘stranger-than-fiction’ story of epic endurance in early reality TV. But I hope it is also an emotional and universal tale about the importance of human connection.