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BIG IN JAPAN
Nasubi

Nasubi
NTV

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

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298: Miura Yuichiro
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