The Totally Insane Japanese Truman Show

By Nolan Moore on Friday, August 22, 2014
susunu
“Somebody help me, I’m being spontaneous!” —Truman Burbank, The Truman Show (1998)

In A Nutshell

His name was Nasubi, and he was hungry, naked, and slowly losing his mind. He was also being watched by 16 million people. You see, Nasubi was the star of Japanese TV show, and he was living inside an empty apartment, completely alone and surviving only on sweepstakes prizes, all for a shot at fame.

The Whole Bushel

What’s the worst reality TV show of all time? Bridalplasty? Jersey Shore? Keeping Up with the Kardashians? True, these programs are all mind-numbingly awful, but at least nobody gets tortured . . . well, not the cast anyway.

Susunu! Denpa Shonen was a totally different story. Premiering in 1998, this Japanese show put would-be comedians in some pretty horrible situations. One contestant was beaten up while handing out condoms in a gay bar, and one nearly died of dehydration while hitchhiking across Africa . . . all while the cameramen stood by and did nothing. Susunu! Denpa Shonen was actually so bad that the government shut it down in 2002.

But the most infamous segment of Susunu! Denpa Shonen featured a 22-year-old comedian nicknamed Nasbui. His moniker meant “eggplant,” a reference to his long face, and he was hoping the show would kick-start his comic career. After he auditioned, producers said he’d appear on a segment that might or might not air, but if it ever reached the airwaves, Nasubi would become a star. The young man was then blindfolded and taken to a room that was empty aside from a radio, a gas burner, and a coffee table. There was essential plumbing, a small cushion, and strangely enough, piles of magazines. Other than that, the room was bare.

That’s when producers told Nasubi to strip. Confused, he took off every last stitch of clothing and covered his privates with the cushion. That’s when producers explained he was in a contest called “Sweepstakes Life.” If he wanted clothes, food, or anything at all, he’d have to win his supplies by entering sweepstakes. That’s why there were so many magazines. Once he reached $10,000 worth of prizes, he could leave his cell and start life as a celebrity. Until then, he had to stay in the room, cut off from the world, living on only what he won. And oh yeah, he had to keep changing the tapes in that video camera . . . the tapes that might show up on TV someday.

Wearing nothing but his birthday suit, Nasubi got to work, filling out postcards and entering nearly 300 contests a day. Of course, it takes a while to win a sweepstakes, and soon, Nasubi was losing a lot of weight. Thankfully, the crew gave him a little bread and water, but when he finally won a few sodas two weeks in, the free food stopped. Four weeks later, he won a bag of rice, but since he didn’t have a pot, he had to cook his food in a soda can. He also won crazy prizes like Spice Girls tickets and a TV (which was worthless without cable). And he never won any clothing that fit, so he was naked the whole entire time.

How long did the contest last? Well, Nasubi was shut up in that room for nearly a year, and it took him 10 months to win any toilet paper. As you might expect, the isolation took a toll on Nasubi, and soon he stopped grooming and started taking advice from toys he’d won. The solitary confinement was driving him nuts, but if he could hold out for just a little longer, he might be famous someday.

What Nasubi didn’t know is that he was already famous. The producers had lied. His crazy antics were already all over the TV, and 16 million people were watching him run around naked, barely making it on rice, and occasionally dancing like nobody was looking. Of course, producers covered up Nasubi’s groin with an illustrated eggplant, and the show was enhanced with silly sound effects and bizarre graphics. Strangely, the show was so popular that Nasubi was already popping up in commercials and on magazines. People watched him on a 24-hour live feed and read his diaries which producers had published. Nasubi’s entire life was on display.

Once Nasubi reached his $10,000 goal, the producers gave him clothes and flew him to South Korea where he spent the day enjoying the scenery. But that night, they stuck him in a Korean apartment that looked just like his old one. They ordered him to strip and said if he wanted a plane ticket back to Japan, he had to play the game all over again. Frustrated and tired, Nasubi obeyed and spent four months in Korea, living off only what he won in magazines. When the show was finally over, the producers took him back to the Land of the Rising Sun . . . and stuck him in another cell.

Assuming he had to play another round, Nasubi took off his clothes, and that’s when the walls fell down. Suddenly, he found himself surrounded by an audience laughing, clapping, and cheering. That’s when the hosts of Susunu! Denpa Shonen informed the bewildered comedian that he was already a star, and he’d won the game. Of course, the price of glory is pretty steep. Nasubi had trouble talking and wearing clothes for a long time. Even worse, his comedy career never went anywhere. But what’s really weird about the whole thing is that Nasubi could’ve left the room whenever he wanted. The door wasn’t locked. When asked why he stayed, Nasubi simply replied, “I said I’d do it, and I do what I say.” He also says it’s given him a better outlook on life. Whenever something bad happens and life seems miserable, he simply reminds himself that at least he’s not back in that room.

Show Me The Proof

Dangerous Minds: Psychological Torture Makes For Good TV
This American Life: Human Spectacle