"Staying alive became my full-time occupation."
July 13, 2014 9:26 PM   Subscribe

I Am The Eggplant: This American Life tells the bizarre story of one man's unwitting stint on the Japanese reality show Susunu! Denpa Shōnen.

Transcript for the impatient or audio-adverse.

From 2011, Neatorama's article on Nasubi's strange "show-business related job": The Adventures of Eggplant.

Nasubi's trials can be seen in two 20-minute episodes of Susunu! Denpa Shōnen on Vimeo: 1, 2 [good quality, English subtitles]; and on YouTube, a four-hour playlist [poor quality, unsubtitled].

Previously on Metafilter: Nasubi entered a contest [2001, dead link; Wayback Machine version].
posted by We had a deal, Kyle (30 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I heard this one. The cruelty of the producers, and of the delighted audience, is hard to fathom.
posted by argybarg at 10:10 PM on July 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

i remember reading this the first time it was up on Metafilter... goodness, this takes me back. i still can't quite believe it's real.
posted by cendawanita at 10:19 PM on July 13, 2014

The cruelty of the producers, and of the delighted audience, is hard to fathom.

Have you seen reality TV? This is its essential premise, almost universally.
posted by el io at 10:33 PM on July 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

For the first time in my lifetime of listening to TAL, I found a segment so cruel I couldn't listen to it. I turned it off. Absolutely awful and unbearable and... Well, they tortured him. Psychologically and physically. I hated to hear it discussed so lightly.
posted by samthemander at 11:01 PM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I never saw it, but I heard about it. There's a bunch of shows like this, though less extreme, these days. One that comes to mind is an end of year special where pairs of celebrities are dumped on random uninhabited islands with only basic equipment (wetsuits and spears for fishing, for example) and expected to survive for a set limit of time.

There's a very, very clear streak of cruelty to a lot of humor, and I would argue that streak is very, very visible in Japan. Sometimes it's funny and enjoyable, other times it's horrifying and uncomfortable to watch, and really makes me question the people who find it hilarious.

Then again, without that, I'd never know that the second fastest way to wake up a sleeping person is a moonsault off a chair onto the sleeping person by Tiger Mask.*

*the fastest is throwing a live octopus on their face
posted by Ghidorah at 11:37 PM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

The cruelty of the producers, and of the delighted audience, is hard to fathom.

Have you seen reality TV? This is its essential premise, almost universally.

What happened to this guy is so far removed from what you have experienced as "reality TV" it's basically not even in the same universe. The closest that any US audience has come was the first season of MTV's "The Real World", and even then, the participants knew they were on camera (even if they didn't fully understand the implications of that during its filming).

This guy was being filmed without his knowledge, and his travails were being broadcast to a national audience without his knowledge. He was nearly starving to the point of jeopardizing his health several times while a national audience watched. He was basically naked on camera on network television for months and months.

The complex social circumstances which kept him from just opening the unlocked door to the apartment he was in and walking away are mind-boggling and difficult to understand, but are obviously a part of the human experience. Otherwise, he would not have continued to endure his isolation and deprivation.

Reality TV is one animal, and it can have its good points and its bad points (I'd put forth that the US version of reality TV is more poisonous than the UK version, which has gems like The Choir which is deeply inspiring), but what this man went through, from day one until day end, was something far above and beyond any of that. It's nearly dystopian movie plot horror material.
posted by hippybear at 11:49 PM on July 13, 2014 [7 favorites]

Japanese culture blog Tofugu did a good review of Nasubi recently: Nasubi, The Naked Eggplant-Man Who Lived Off Sweepstakes
posted by gen at 11:56 PM on July 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

Hmm... I'd be willing to believe say, half of what was reported. Susunu Denpa Shonen got pretty famous for appearing much harder than it actually was. The comedy team Saruganseki had to hitch-hike penniless across Asia, but later it turned out that a couple of times they actually flew business class between countries, and I believe they got flown back to Japan a few times for vacations during the show. There were a couple more segments, too, where it seemed like some situation was incredibly tough, and then it turned out that it was just staged that way.

Not to say that some parts weren't tough. It wasn't an easy show, by any means. But it's certainly not a show with a track record of "what you see on screen is what actually happened".
posted by Bugbread at 12:08 AM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

One tiny example: In the mid-90s Denpa Shonen was incredibly famous for having Saruganseki hitchhike Asia. Their diaries were published and were bestsellers. You could not live in this country without knowing all of this. The show then did the same thing with hitchhiking across South America with a group called...Dorons? I can't remember. It wasn't as big a hit, but still pretty well known. They did the same thing with publishing diaries. Chu-yan's trip across Africa followed, and, again, I think they did the diaries. Nasubi knew all of this before the show started. He was asked by the show to keep a diary. So when TAL says "They tell him his diaries were published and are best sellers", that is probably technically true, in that perhaps he thought it would be published after the segment ended. But the impression that sentence gives ("the monsters published his private diaries without his knowledge!!") is totally off-base.
posted by Bugbread at 12:17 AM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is interesting, Bugbread. I found the segment completely nuts and more than a little depressing. To my mind the key moment was when he was asked why, when it started to be clear what was going on (I think after they took his clothes and put him in the apartment and gave him the conditions) he didn't bail out. His answer was, I think, that he was culturally inclined to just see it through. Which made me think even less of the producers.
posted by From Bklyn at 5:17 AM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, don't get me wrong. Denpa Shonen was no ride in the park, and I'm sure it was a suck-ass job for him. I don't think he said anything untrue in the interview, either (Japanese media folks do not burn bridges easily, so if he's saying something bad, it's very likely true). And Japanese producers can be pretty evil.

I just think mean that the This American Life parts, and the way they phrase them, are to be taken with a bit of salt. Regarding the first episode, This American Life says, "Nasubi screams, are you for real?" Rewatching the first episode, what I see does not match the mental image conjured by that phrasing. I would have gone with "blurts incredulously" or something.

Or, for example, note that when he goes back to Japan after the four month stint in Korea, all of a sudden there are no quotes, it's all TAL descriptions. And they don't actually make much sense. "Picture it-- the producers sneak into Nasubi's room and blindfold him again, dress him, drive him to another location. They release him in yet another bare room...Turns out, he's onstage in a huge studio in Japan in front of an enormous audience."

Oh, so despite the language barrier, and lack of drive and energy, he reached the sweepstakes amount in Korea three times faster than in Japan? And they snuck into his room, blind-folded him, and took him blindfolded and earmuffed through Korean passport control, onto a plane, and through Japanese passport control?

Knowing Dempa Shonen, the reason TAL stops quoting him here is probably because the reality gets way, way less juicy.
posted by Bugbread at 6:05 AM on July 14, 2014

I-I don't understand.. There's been a little mistake.. [ laughing politely ] You see, my wife Mary and I are here on vacation.. It's a lovely country, everyone's been great. Anyhoo, the concierge at the hotel said, "Do you wanna go to a game show?" Well.. See, I thought she meant see a game show, not be on a game show! Big mistake! Big.. mistake!
posted by entropicamericana at 7:29 AM on July 14, 2014

I think, in terms of the cruelty of the audience enjoying it, they probably weren't aware of the full story. We tend to assume - sometimes erroneously - that anyone on a Reality TV show is participating with full informed consent and being looked after. We know we're seeing edited highlights and that the truth is bent for the purposes of an entertaining narrative. So I expect the audience weren't cackling at his misfortune so much as laughing sympathetically at a comedian whose actual mental state must have been ambiguous. I'm not saying they didn't have a responsibility to find out for themselves how well he was being treated, but I doubt most people were enjoying it out of a delicious schadenfreude. It sounds like he was presented as a humorous grotesque representing Japan's economic woes and plucky try-hard spirit - I expect most people were rooting for him and thought he was in on the joke.

This is not to defend the producers, who sound like they let the pursuit of money and making good TV get in the way of their duty of care and basic humanity.
posted by RokkitNite at 7:39 AM on July 14, 2014

Two comments from the "previously" link:
the only "appalling" thing about this article is the sensationalist spin the writer's put on it.

a few things to consider:

1) He was a professional actor with a career that was going downhil. He made a LOT of money, and became very famous as a result of the show.

2) he KNEW what he was auditioning for. Maybe not all the specifics, but he knew he was auditioning for something that would last a long time and would be extremely humiliating.

3) it's like survivor. it might have some parts that are "reality" everyone knew that it wasn't completely real.

I'll now direct you to everyone's favorite soon-t-be-gone-cause-the-parent-company-went-belly-up community weblog, plastic.com, where you'll find this thread discussing the same story. look for the comments by "kazamatsuri" for a little more sane description of the show.
posted by chrisege at 8:40 AM on June 15, 2001

chrisege, thanks for the link... this quote from kazamatsuri definitely clears it up:
All of these sound amazing, but they are all examples of what is called "yarase" in Japanese, or "faking it" or a "set-up". Do you think that guy could REALLY live in a tiny apartment with nothing and not know he was on TV? It was so obviously a set up...he would dance naked conveniently in front of the camera, for everyone to see. Or he would walk up to the mirror the camera was hidden behind and say funny things right into the camera.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 11:15 AM on June 15, 2001
posted by languagehat at 7:47 AM on July 14, 2014

Remember: Work is it's own reward. And cloudy drink kills frogs.
posted by Theta States at 7:48 AM on July 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

I used to have a VHS tape of some stuff taped from Japanese TV. I wish I hadn't lost it.
One part of a game show featured the contestant on a plank at the edge of a cliff. They answered questions and a wrong answer increased the steepness of the plank. At the bottom of the pank was a big button, and when it was too steep to hold on he slid in to the button and was immediately shot with great force in to the air and over the cliff edge, where he was left to dangle by a bungee cord.

Another segment featured professional soccer players forced to play with a square ball.
Then one was told to lay down on the ground and close their eyes. A small child came out and peed on their face.
This is a thing that happened.

Another image that will stay with me forever is when they strapped meat to someone's forehead, and then poked their head up through a hole in to a cage that had a giant lizard in it that then charged towards them.

Or the hooks in the nose, pulling upwards with ever greater force.

Anyone else know this show?
posted by Theta States at 7:54 AM on July 14, 2014

There are currently 28 Seasons of Survivor.
The series has also been renewed for a thirtieth season, to air in early 2015.
posted by Fizz at 8:03 AM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I watched it when it was on Hulu, and thought it was amusing, but I didn't think it was real. I'd been so conditioned to scripted American "reality" TV shows that it didn't occur to me that they would actually starve a guy. Now I'm kind of sickened.
posted by desjardins at 8:05 AM on July 14, 2014

Theta States: "Anyone else know this show?"

Overall it sounds like the stuff Downtown used to do (especially the S&M nose hooks), so I suspect Downtown No Gotsu E Kanji, but two things: even without having seen it, I can pretty much guarantee that 1) the guy in the peeing incident was not a professional soccer player (perhaps a comedian mixed in with the others, who were actual soccer players). That shit wouldn't fly here. The playing soccer with a square ball, sure, but even faked pee stuff is the exclusive domain of "comedians". 2) The pee wasn't real. You could do some fairly weird stuff on Japanese TV back in the 20th century, but not actually peeing on someone.
posted by Bugbread at 8:14 AM on July 14, 2014

I remember hearing about this guy and all I could think was WTF.

Then I noticed, recently, commercials for a series where people who have never met each other get married. As in, apparently the first time they even see each other is at the ceremony. Someone remind me how it is that gays are debasing marriage?

Then it got worse. Bravo (in Canada) is now airing a series called Couch Potatoes or something. It consists of filming (apparently) normal people being filmed while they watch reality TV and dishing on it.

We accidentally caught a few minutes of it last night. The horror, the horror.

In conclusion, 90%+ of reality TV is created and designed by people who like to torture people psychologically. Look at how many suicides seem to be attached to Gordon Ramsay's various shows, for example. Top Chef seems to be pretty good about this, and so does Project Runway. (NB: I said good not perfect.)

And while I'm on the subject and ranting, America's Got Talent pisses me the hell off. Fully 90% of people who audition for that show have zero chance of ever having a headlining Vegas act because they are one-trick ponies that last about five minutes. (See also: America's Next Top Model.) It's dangling a carrot in front of people that they can and will never ever reach, hyping them up as though they have a chance, and then crushing their dreams. (I don't believe for one moment that the viewer votes actually make any real decisions. I'm sure that buried somewhere in the fine print is something about final choices are subject to the producers.)

SYTYCD is sort of midway between those two extremes, because my word do they get some wonderfully talented dancers, many of whom, win or not, go on to bigger and better things. Hell, Billy Bell had to drop out of the show due to illness, formed his own dance troupe, and is getting recognition on his merits as a dancer.

I'm just babbling now so /rant.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:34 AM on July 14, 2014

Another image that will stay with me forever is when they strapped meat to someone's forehead, and then poked their head up through a hole in to a cage that had a giant lizard in it that then charged towards them.

This was done to the jpop girlband Morning Musume and is in fact delightful and hilarious.
posted by elizardbits at 10:49 AM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I prefer reality competitions like American Ninja Warrior. It contains absolutely zero negative drama: there is no trashtalking or manufactured rivalries between competitors, and no insults from the announcers. The competitor profiles are transparently designed to tug at your heartstrings, but that's about it. It's not a live show, so there's going to be some editing, but there's no fakery: either the person makes it on their own merits, or they don't.

Go Kacy!
posted by desjardins at 12:26 PM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I Am The Eggplant

Goo goo gajoob
posted by Herodios at 1:19 PM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I imagine more than a couple members of Morning Musume would be thrilled to have that much attention again. They fell off so badly, even my junior high students wouldn't admit to ever having liked them as kids.

As for Tunnels, a lot of things have been toned down, but one of their recurring bits is a golf-announcer set up where the two comedians sit in a booth while a van pulls up to a random location. The celebrity guest gets out, and walks across a field to the shooting location, only to fall through a trap into a pit filled with water. They always talk about the difficulty of the trap in terms of par, and it's pretty much always hilarious. What can I say, I have some easily reached humor buttons.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:01 PM on July 14, 2014

It's a bit of a paradox when you compare this sort of Japanese reality TV with game shows.

Most Japanese quiz style game shows, including their version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, feature celebrity contestants instead of regular people. The reason usually given is that audiences are put off by seeing people of their same general social status undeservedly awarded. After living here for a while and seeing how much socialism trumps individualism on a local community level (somehow I'm even a member of my town's volunteer fire corps now), I get how certain American gameshow standards don't translate well.

But that ideal of fairness seems to fly out the window when it comes to being punished instead of awarded. I think it comes down to the public perception that anyone pursuing a career as a TV entertainer, and especially as a comedian, suddenly waives all their human rights in the name of entertaining audiences. People think because these entertainers are pursuing individualistic goals or possess some level of fame, it's fair game for taking them down a notch.

Awarding disputable talent = bad / punishing self-proclaimed talent = good .?. Or something along those lines; I've lived here 8 years, but one of the things I still can't quite wrap my brain around is popular media and television.
posted by p3t3 at 7:45 PM on July 14, 2014

p3t3: "The reason usually given is that audiences are put off by seeing people of their same general social status undeservedly awarded."

The reason I've always heard is just that 1) regular folks aren't as interesting as celebrities (meaning comedians or non-comedians-but-still-funny celebrities), which I can kinda agree with (not that the comedians are all that funny, but some are, and I've laughed a whole lot more at Japanese quiz shows than I have at American game shows) and 2) various talent agencies, production companies, etc. are all scratching each others' backs.

Also, I'm sure it keeps costs way down, surprisingly. Let's say you have a game show featuring regular people. You'd have to give pretty big prizes to get viewers to engage. Having someone compete for $500 wouldn't be enough for anyone to give a damn. But switch out the regular person with a celebrity, and you now have people watching because they think the celeb is funny, or they have a crush on the celeb, or whatever. Now, it doesn't really matter how much the prize money is, because the viewer isn't focused on the money, they're focused on the person. So if you need a $10,000 prize to make a game show featuring amateurs interesting, but only a $500 prize to make a game show featuring professionals interesting, you're saving money as long as the pro gets less than $9,500 to be on the show, and you know they're making way, way less than that.

Note that shows featuring exceptional non-celebs are successful. Terebi Challenge did really well, those shows about turning around failing restaurants do well, Sasuke does well, etc. Those shows where Todai students compete against Waseda and Keio students do well. But no one wants to watch a show where some average shlub is put on stage and then wins or loses based on their knowledge of random trivia. They don't have interesting skills or abilities, nor do they have interesting patter, so nobody feels like watching them.
posted by Bugbread at 8:25 PM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks, Bugbread, that makes more sense, but is still somewhat puzzling in regards to the broader socialist vs. individualist mindset. If contestants don't have TV-friendly or entertaining skills, then they're not interesting, but you'd expect that having every-day contestants would be MORE relatable. I guess relatable is not a factor when it comes to choosing a TV program here. TV is more of an escape from the sameness that is valued in the local community.
posted by p3t3 at 8:36 PM on July 14, 2014

Oh, and regarding my previous post and the conflicting excuses for celebrity game show contestants- I was citing what I had heard from my wife (Japanese), as well as some of what I've seen in the news; for example -

It seems that watching ordinary people winning money isn't very enticing in Japan, a culture that has traditionally discouraged individuals from flaunting their wealth or achievements, ...

That said, your reasoning makes more sense. But maybe the media likes to cover up the underlying financial/logisitical reasons with these idealistic reasons for the sake of PR.
posted by p3t3 at 9:03 PM on July 14, 2014

Maybe it's just because I'm from the US, but I think it's more a matter of income disparity and laws. In the US there is such a huge income disparity that people watch game shows as aspirational shows. They like to watch other folks like them win because they imagine themselves winning big and buying a mansion and whathaveyou. That exists in Japan, as well, but when the mold for quiz shows was set, there was a lot less of it.

And regarding laws, from 1971 to 1996 (thank you, wikipedia) the law limited the maximum prize given on a TV show to about $10,000 (US dollars). So you're not going to get a super buzz by seeing someone like you WIN BIG and buy a mansion and car and take a trip around the world and and and. You're going to, at most, see someone get to buy (in 1971) a really nice car, and (in 1995) a really modest car. The number was raised to $100,000 in 1996, and in 2006 the limit was removed, but, really, by then, I think, the mold had already been set.
posted by Bugbread at 9:05 PM on July 14, 2014

Yeah, a lot of Japanese TV becomes demystified as you start to realize that most of the decisions are really just various attempts at masking or overcoming a shoe-string budget. But I guess I should save this for a later thread as it's starting to stray pretty far from the tragedy of the original topic.

Not knowing how much of Nasubi-san's story is sensationalized, it's hard to comment too much. And I'm guessing the general public assumed much of it to be fake as well, which might help explain a lack of public outcry.

Another slightly less off-topic story to illustrate this point: There was a popular reality show here, Inaka Ni Tomaro, where a celebrity would go to a small town, try to find a local family to put them up for the night, then document their time together. For one episode, a celebrity showed up to the school I was teaching, and he ended up staying overnight at my co-worker's parents house. Fun story, but when I tell it to locals, they're mostly surprised by the fact that the celebrity really did show up unannounced and the whole thing wasn't staged.

I'm interested to know the extent of the abuses of Denpa Shonen, but not sure we'll ever get a clear answer.?.
posted by p3t3 at 9:56 PM on July 14, 2014

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