|BIG IN JAPAN
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
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
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
It may well already be too late for that; and Nasubi's little nasu had nothing to do with
John Paul Catton