Degradation, “human rockets” – dark moments of Japanese television remembered in light of Nasubi’s story gaining worldwide attention
The worldwide premiere of the 2023 documentary film “The Contestant” brought the world’s attention to the darkness of the infamous Japanese variety show Susunu! Denpa Shōnen, earning it names such as “public torture,” and “the evilest show in history.” Such reactions from overseas have caused the Japanese public to look back on the dark history of Heisei era (1989-2019) variety shows. In an article by JPRIME, a Japanese writer reminisces on other variety shows of the time that showed disregard for people’s safety and dignity.
Variety and reality television don’t really have a history of being ethical anywhere around the world, but a show that particularly stands out for its disregard of human rights and dignity is the Japanese Susunu! Denpa Shōnen, which infamously forced an amateur comedian called Nasubi to live in isolation for 15 months, naked and relying only on prizes won in sweepstakes to survive. The whole process was televised, unbeknownst to Nasubi, and edited in demeaning ways before being broadcast to the nation. (Related Article).
What would nowadays be regarded as a complete violation of human rights, and most definitely not fit for airing on television, was once simply accepted as entertainment – the 2023 documentary “The Contestant,” revived this memory as it told the story of Nasubi’s suffering during the program, and reactions of the public were understandably horrified. But Denpa Shōnen wasn’t an isolated case in this sense, as many TV shows of the Heisei era treaded well beyond what can be considered acceptable today in order to secure ratings.
On the topic of “the abnormal TV shows of the Heisei era,” Tamotsu Narita, a writer experienced in television, mentions the variety/game show “The Tunnels’ Thanks to Everyone” that aired from 1997 to 2018, on which, as Narita mentions, “anything was acceptable.” Instances of sexual harassment of idols and actresses, as well as power harassment, bullying based on appearance and violent scuffles were all an everyday occurrence, and not only in the background of the show, but in its very contents.
In an especially notorious “skit” from 1994 (shown above), the young model Nanako Matsushima is made to kneel as two men act out kicking and hitting her, during which she is made to utter sexually suggestive lines, including referring to herself as a sow.
On another occasion, the show made an emergency live broadcast, during which it was announced that one of the hosts had died mid-show from appendicitis, and then proceeded to hold a memorial, which included a giant photograph of the hosts presumably deceased body. The broadcast was of course, a prank, and although it did not air for long, as there was no internet at the time, it was impactful enough to mislead a lot of people. On the other hand, the show received extremely high ratings for the stunt.
The sport/quiz contest show “Beat Takeshi’s Comedy Ultra Quiz!!” from 1989 is also mentioned as “completely unacceptable” by today’s standards. According to Narita, it would place participants at risk of bodily harm by exposing them to explosions while riding in stunt cars, launching them as “human rockets,” placing them before crocodiles and similar. On one occasion, the show even submerged an entire bus (full of people) under water repeatedly.
What made the shows of this era so unhinged is no doubt the lack of precedent and legal regulations, but another very likely aspect is the degree to which television was the major source of entertainment of the time, which meant TV stations could secure big budgets to realize their every whim. Commenting on the disappearance of such TV shows, Narita mentions that budget cuts were likely the main reason. Now, with growingly strict regulations, such programs have mostly become a thing of the past, but they are a surprisingly recent part of media history.