Hulu is getting a documentary about a real-life Truman Show, and it looks harrowing

The Contestant
(Image credit: Misfits Entertainment)

Hulu has bought the rights to what looks like the ultimate feel-bad movie: The Contestant. The documentary was a critical hit at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, and it'll be available to stream in 2024, when it may well become one of the best Hulu documentaries.

The synopsis sounds like something from a horror movie: a reality TV show strips a man of his possessions and his clothes and forces him to live alone for more than a year; he doesn't realize that every moment of his life is being broadcast. But it really did happen – the show was a big hit in Japan at the turn of the century, with contestants largely consisting of unknown comedians desperate to break into show business. The version of the show that's focused on in the documentary, Denpa Shōnen teki Kenshō Seikatsu, began in early 1998 and ran for 15 months.

It's fair to say that this documentary doesn't show reality TV at its best. The contestant of the title, Tomoaki Hamatsu aka Nasubi, was clearly exploited; in a real-life echo of The Truman Show he had no idea that he was being broadcast constantly, or that he was becoming famous in the world outside his tiny apartment.

What are the critics saying about The Contestant?

The story is told in multiple parts, showing the charming silliness of Nasubi as he enters the apartment and contrasting it with the sadness and loneliness the older man admits he experienced; as what began as a series of short weekly clips becomes 24/7 surveillance and broadcasting – without his knowledge, let alone his consent – showrunner and super-producer Toshio Tsuchiya and his team break all kinds of boundaries but show little or no regret about the damage they may have been doing or the ethical lines they appear to have been crossing. 

POV Magazine says it "serves as a solid primer for the reality boom that would occur in the years to follow," while Max Covill of It's The Pictures writes that "It’s pretty crazy that [it] is a thing that actually happened and not some twisted event from a horror movie." And Sarah Bea Miller of That Shelf says it "is so much more than a documentary about one man’s exploitation. It’s a story that humanizes someone whose humanity was callously and publicly stripped away." RyMovieGuy, in the video embedded above, says "you almost lose faith in humanity... it's necessary to watch."

However, the danger of making a documentary about somebody being exploited is that there's a risk you'll be exploitative too. That's something many critics have pointed out: writing for Film Obsessive, Tina Kakadelis says that the film missed the opportunity to show the viewers; she asks, "what does our obsession with these types of shows say about us?... the story of The Contestant will be milked for further content." Meanwhile Dan Fienberg of The Hollywood Reporter puts it more forcefully: "It’s a documentary about voyeurism that, in the absence of freshly delivered insight, just reintroduces and rehashes the voyeuristic impulse it’s largely condemning."

The Contestant will arrive on Hulu in 2024.

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Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall (Twitter) has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR.