NASUBI - By Ed Jacob
Nippon Television's (NTV) producers have obviously never heard of the Geneva Convention. If they had, they wouldn't have treated poor Nasubi the way they did. They wouldn't have stripped him naked and shut him in an apartment, alone with no food, furniture, household goods, or entertainment. They wouldn't have kept him there for over a year until he had won $10 000 in prizes by sending in postcards to contests. They wouldn't have cut him off from the world and they would have told him that he was on nation-wide TV.
It all started one snowy day in January, 1998 with an audition. The audition consisted of choosing lots because the only talent needed for this challenge was luck. A group of aspiring comedians showed up, and among them was a young man whose stage name is Nasubi, which means eggplant. Nasubi was 'lucky' that day, and was chosen over other aspiring young comedians for a mysterious "show-business related job". He was immediately blindfolded and driven to a tiny one room apartment somewhere in Tokyo.
When he arrived at the apartment, he was shown a stand full of magazines, a huge pile of postcards, and told to strip naked. The room was empty except for a cushion, a table, a small radio, a telephone, some notebooks, and a few pens. There was not a crumb of food, a square of toilet paper, or any form of entertainment. Whatever he needed, he was to win by sending thousands of postcards into contests. The producers left and Nasubi was on his own in his unique survival challenge. Imagine what was going through his mind: How am I going to eat? Why are they doing this to me? How long will it take to get out of here? He must have thought he was in a bad episode of The Prisoner.
Nasubi won his first contest on February 8th. He got some jelly, a 1560 yen value, leaving him with 998 440 yen left to win. That day, he ate food for the first time in two weeks! On February 22nd, he won a 5 kg bag of rice. Unfortunately, he had no cooking utensils. At first he tried eating it raw, but eventually devised a cooking method where he put it in an empty can beside a burner for an hour until it was "cooked". He ate about a half cup of rice a day using two pens for chopsticks.
Life was tough for Nasubi--he was obviously lonely, uncomfortable and bored but he seemed to be continually cheerful in the face of adversity. Putting on a bold face when one is suffering is one of the most admired traits in Japan and this was a big reason for the program's incredible popularity. He spent his days writing postcards, and sent out between 3000 and 8000 a month! It must have been incredibly discouraging because by the end of March, he had only won 66,840 yen, leaving him with 933,160 yen left to win.
Every time Nasubi won a contest, he did a victory dance and made up a strange song about the prize he had won and how happy he was. You've never seen anyone's face light up the way Nasubi's did when he heard a knock at the door or the telephone rang. In this picture below we see him celebrating after he won a poster of his favourite TV star, an attractive young woman named Ryoko Hirose. His apartment was gradually filling up and he was beginning to live something resembling a human life. Of course there were some bad moments too, especially the day he won a TV but realized his apartment had no antennae or cable!
A doctor's visit in May, after five months in the room, revealed Nasubi to be in perfect health! No scurvy, no fleas or lice, and no signs of malnutrition. He had lost a lot of weight, and his ribs were showing through his skin, but his blood tests and a physical examination revealed no other problems. His fingernails had grown to several inches long and his hair and beard were getting rather unmanageable by that time, but they were annoyances rather than dangers. It's incredible what the human body can survive and how resilient people are. Who would have thought that it was possible to live like that?
Near the end of May, Nasubi's rice ran out, and he was reduced to eating dog food. It was heart wrenching seeing him prey every night for rice.
By June, the show had become incredibly popular and the mass media had found out where Nasubi was staying. In the middle of the night, he was awakened by a producer with a flashlight, blindfolded and moved to a new apartment. He was told that it was to "change his luck" but the real reason was that the producers were worried he would find out that the entire nation was watching him. Unfortunately, the people who moved his things to the new apartment forgot to bring his rice! One of the few times we got to see Nasubi really angry was when he said, "How could you forget my rice??? How could you? Don't you know how important my rice is?" He seemed to be on the point of breaking.
By the end of June, his total had reached 550 000 yen, halfway to his goal of one million yen!
In July, a live internet feed to Nasubi's room was set up. Because he was nude, they needed a staff of 50 to maintain the site and control the ever-present dot over Nasubi's private parts. Until this time, some people had thought the whole thing was fake, but the live internet feed convinced everyone that the show was not being staged. The site was incredibly popular and received thousands of hits everyday. Part of the reason the show and live internet feed were so popular was because he played with everything he won. He often talked to a stuffed animal that he won and named Venus, or rolled around on the set car tires.
August and September were some of the toughest months. He went for two weeks in August without winning a single contest, and most of the things he won in September had almost no value and he advanced only about 10 000 yen that month. One happy moment in September was his "Summer Holiday" at the beach (naked of course). It was felt that having spent eight months in the apartment, he needed to get out. In October he moved again.
When he won a video deck to go with his TV, he was able to watch his two videos--an exercise video and a cycling tape. He saw a woman for the first time in 10 months. In November, he won two rolls of toilet paper, a huge moment in his life! He also won a Sony Play Station, which went well with the train driving game, and special controller he had won earlier and he spent hours in front of the TV. He spent about three days playing with it and then decided that he was wasting too much time playing with it.
Nasubi's first ordeal ended in December. The thing that put him over the top was, of course, a bag of rice. Unfortunately, he didn't know that he had won and continued writing postcards. That night, he was paid another visit by the producer, who crept in with Christmas crackers to wake him up in the middle of the night. There was nothing congratulatory in the producer's manner as he refused to answer Nasubi's questions, and continued setting off the Christmas Cracker's until Nasubi realized that he had successfully completed his challenge. Nasubi was curled up into a foetal position, and seemed unused to talking to other people.
Finally, he was given back his clothes, and for the first time in a year, he knew what it was like to wear clothes other than women's underwear. They gave him a bowl of ramen, and let him out on the street. They also took him to an amusement park and to Korea to eat his favourite food, Korean barbecue. After his 'rest' was over, he found himself back in a room, all alone again, but this time in Korea, a country whose language he could neither speak nor write! This time however, his goal was to earn his airfare home. It was about $400 US.
He won the required money by getting a TV, expensive food and other prizes relatively quickly, so the staff made his challenge more and more difficult (without telling him) and decided that he would have to get a business class and then a first class ticket. Nasubi began to become suspicious that Nasubi must have achieved his goal so the producer paid him another visit. He was finally flown back to Japan.
This time, they took him into a Television studio, and led him in a box that he thought was a room. Out of habit, he took off his clothes and waited. Suddenly, the walls of the 'room' fell down and the 'ceiling' was raised. He found himself naked in front of a thousand cheering fans and the hosts of Denpa Shonen came out and explained everything that had been happening over the last year and three months to him.
He was told that his diary had become a number one best seller grossing hundreds of thousands of yen, that when he ate the bowl of Ramen at the end of his ordeal in Japan the footage had been used in an immensely popular TV commercial, and that he his web site had grossed huge amounts of money.
Some things that Nasubi won during his year and three months of "Living off contests":
2 vacuums, rice (4 times, 35 kg), shoes, a watermelon, a cutlery set, ice cream, chocolates, natto (twice), bicycle, television (no antennae in the apartment), a globe, stuffed animals, dental care products, videos, pickled egg plant, a poster of Hirose Ryoko, free tickets to the Spice Girls movie, a coupon for a free English lesson (twice), headphones, a CD Rom, videos, a huge box of potato chips, duck meat, a barbecue, several unidentifiable varieties of Japanese snacks, a belt, some sexy women's underwear (which he tried to wear but couldn't put on), Matsutake mushrooms, steak, a tent, an attache case, a set of tires, a photo book, golf balls
Some things that Nasubi never won during his year and three months of "Living off contests"
Clothes, plates, soap, books, a bed or futon, sheets and blankets, pots or pans
So what was the point of the Nasubi experiment? Ostensibly, it was to test the thesis that contests had become so ubiquitous that it would be possible to live entirely on what one had won in them. This was called kensho seikatsu (Living off contests).
Of course the real reason is that programs involving human suffering are extremely popular in Japan. The gambaru genre, started in the 1980's with the immensely popular show Za Gaman, a show in which university students competed in contests to see who could stand the most pain, eat the most unpleasant foods, and perform the most humiliating tasks. Denpa Shonen is a logical continuation of this trend, and the stunts are becoming more and more dangerous/appalling.
Someday a Japanese comedian is going to die in a horrible accident and this sort of program will be immediately pulled from the airwaves. People are travelling through dangerous countries, fighting bulls without any training, scaring the life out of innocent victims and playing incredibly cruel practical jokes. It's inevitable that a tragic accident will happen. There will be condemnations and recriminations, and people will say that they never liked them, knew they were dangerous, and definitely never watched them. But almost everybody is watching them because they are fascinating.
First of all, they are hilarious. Even people who hate the idea of them usually can't help laughing if they watch them. You also sympathise with the comedians and feel sorry for them because they seem to be victims of the evil TV producers or their circumstances, but never think about how you, the viewer who is increasing the show's ratings are actually responsible. The shows are funny, and in a strange way, educational too. A lot of people learned about what humans are and are not capable of by watching Nasubi. People like to be shocked, they get addicted by the suspense, and they love rooting for the suffering individual when they get close to achieving their goal.
If you want to see Nasubi for yourself, go to your local video store (in Japan) and it will be in the comedy section.
- Ed Jacob