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The Contestant 2023 / A breakthrough in reality TV reveals the cruel lengths the media is willing to go to in exploiting a person’s misery for entertainment

7.0

In many ways, the 1998 film The Truman Show forecasted how we’d interact with media today. Parasocial relationships are a thing, as is the feeling of entitlement we get when prying into other people’s lives. But before all that, Japanese TV producers were already testing the ethical limits of voyeurism through the reality show Denpa Shōnen, a social experiment of sorts that broadcasted how people would react in extreme situations. It was one of the first of its kind, and so The Contestant takes us through its novelty; smartly, it explains how and why a show so brutal was a massive hit. It tries to understand Japanese media and humor, not other it, while also sympathizing with Nasubi, who sits down for an enlightening interview. The documentary itself is revealing and disturbing—except for a confusing third act, in which it completely loses its critical air and tells a story of heroism that, while inspiring, feels detached from the rest of the film. What was the aftermath of all that cruelty? Did no one file a retroactive complaint? Is Japanese media still this intense and unwittingly cruel? These are things you’d expect the documentary would tackle by the end, but it confusingly doesn’t. Still, it’s an important and educational watch, one that hopefully serves as a cautionary tale against the ever-manipulative media and always-hungry viewer.

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