A man walks into an empty room. He is told to strip naked and his clothes are taken away. To one side are stacked hundreds of blank postcards. The man is told that to get out of the room, he must raise the equivalent of JY1 million by replying to free offers and competitions in newspapers and magazines. He must also clothe and entertain himself only by receiving those prizes. This was the challenge that made a superstar out of the 23-year-old comedian known as Nasubi.

The challenge was aired as part of the Denpa Shonen comedy series on Sunday nights, and ran from January 1998 to the end of March 1999. It proved to be an instant ratings success, as 17 million viewers tuned in weekly to find out how he was coping, and to laugh at his bizarre behavior in front of his self-operated camera. Nasubi would cavort naked around the tiny apartment (he could never seem to win any clothes, for some reason), with a computer-generated eggplant covering his embarrassment, pulling ridiculous faces at the camera every time he received something edible (he must have been given some support with his daily diet, but this was never clarified).

Before getting his break on the show, Nasubi (his real name withheld by NTV) was a complete unknown, and, appropriately enough, he was chosen out of the hopefuls by lottery. He had taken the usual path of heading for Tokyo after high school, writing skits and one-liners and hustling to get himself known and become a professional comedian. The diary that he wrote during those eighteen months is now a best-seller, and shows a very eloquent, and witty sense of language, which proved that success on the show wasn' all just luck.

Although it looked as if he was enjoying himself, the show was edited this way for television. After his ordeal had finished and he was free to give interviews, Nasubi told the press that he frequently felt on the verge of a nervous breakdown: "I thought of escaping several times... I was on the edge, especially towards the end." Not so much entertainment, really, more of a 1950s Manchurian prison camp.

This kind of sadism isn't new to Japanese TV. Westerners with long memories may remember Gaman ("Endurance"), the game-show where members of the public carried out gruesome and sometimes life-threatening tasks to win that big prize. Although the show is history, the spirit lives on. Denpa Shonen and other programs feature celebrities and ordinary viewers struggling with almost impossible tasks, with the cameras and the viewers at home taking part in the ritual humiliation of the chosen victim. Embarrassment may well be the great leveler, but sometimes the laughter leaves a sour taste in the mouth; Japan's TV cameras seem incapable of drawing a line between private pain and public entertainment, and the challenges are becoming increasingly extreme.

Recent interviews with the Denpa Shonen producer, Yuki Takagi, display telling insights into the minds of the program makers. She was quoted as saying that the series would never be shown abroad - because of the nudity. "Nasubi is nude. Foreign people would gain a bad image of Nippon Television if they saw it... it might reflect badly on Japanese culture."

It may well already be too late for that; and Nasubi's little nasu had nothing to do with it.

John Paul Catton

299: Nakamura Kankuro
Arizona lover and Kabuki actor
298: Miura Yuichiro
The Man Who Skied Down Everest
297: Iron Chef
Gourmet cuisine battles
296: "Katte wa ikenai"
"Don't buy these products"
295: Oda Yuji
The dancing detective
294: Enoki Takaaki
An artist who acts
293: Glay
Japan's reigning pop princes
292: Akebono
Hawaiian Sumo wrestler
291: Issey Miyake
Fashion designer
290: Murakami Ryu
Radical writer
289: Oshima Nagisa
Movie director
288: Takakura Ken
Crime film actor
287: Miura Kazuyoshi
Soccer player
286: Suzuki Koji
Author of the horror, Ring
285: Tezuka Osamu
God of Comics
284: Yuming
283: Anpanman
Bean-powered superhero
282: Yamaguchi Takashi
Immersed in traditional Japanese music
281: Nasubi
280: Doi Takako
First female Speaker of the House
279: Nakamura Kichiemon
Retiring Kabuki actor
278: Oe Kenzaburo
Nobel prize winning author
277: Kimura Takuya
SMAP member
276: Utada Hikaru
Teenage pop phenomenon
275: Bando Tamasaburo
Kabuki female role impersonator
274: Otomo Katsuhiro
Akira creator
273: Dreams Come True
Premier recording artist
272: Dango San Kyodai
Surprise hit of 1999
271: Banana Yoshimoto
270: Matsuzaka Daisuke
Baseball player
269: Moritaka Chisato
Model and singer
268: Mukai Chiaki
Female astronaut
267: Natto
Traditional Japanese health food
266: Hiroaki Kikuoka
Shamisen player
265: Chikamatsu Monzaemon
Japan's most revered dramatist
264: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Oscar-winning musician
263: Shigeo Nagashima
Japan's Mr Baseball
262: Ayako Totsuka
Pioneer careerwoman
261: Yatsuhashi Kengyo
Koto player
260: Chiyotaikai
Sumo wrestler
259: Pocky
Japanese snack food
258: Itsuki Hiroshi
Enka singer
257: Pocket Monsters
Conquering the world
256: Classified ads
New concept in Japan
255: Chara
Japanese pop star
254: Pink Lady
1970's singing duo
253: Takashi Sorimachi
Japanese heartthrob
252: Ennosuke Ichikawa
Kabuki actor
251: Rie Miyazawa
Model and actress
250: Shazna
Visual-kei band

Issues 350 +
Issues 349 - 300/1
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