Television is often blamed for conditioning its audience in undesirable ways: We want things faster, easier, in bite-size pieces that don’t require a lot of chewing. And everything must have a kicker, a dramatic endpoint that will justify our time in front of the box.
This kicker requirement is the reason so-called reality TV is anything but real. The people you see on shows like “Survivor” and “Big Brother” are often referred to as “contestants.” Being able to spy on people on this desert island or in that urban apartment is apparently not enough of an incentive to actually watch. Somebody has to win something in the end, because winning provides closure. Lives go on, but programs have to end at some point.
Fuji TV’s half-hour reality-TV program “Hyakuman Otoko” (“One Million Man”; Thursday, 1:55 a.m.) takes this concept as its premise but turns it inside-out. Rather than offer a prize as a reward for accomplishing something after it’s accomplished, the producers of “Hyakuman” give the prize right upfront. The conditions for receiving the prize are so simple as to make them practically nonconditions: The man must spend 1 million yen within five hours, and he must spend it all on himself.
The appeal is that we get to watch him spend it. There are probably quite a few people reading this who are thinking to themselves, “Another Japanese TV show about absolutely nothing,” and they would be right, at least in terms of action. Nothing much really happens during the show’s 30 minutes, but that would seem to be exactly the point.
It turns out that spending 1 million yen in five hours is not as simple as it sounds, especially for a man (it’s significant that only males are sought). The conditions make it harder, but only from a psychological standpoint. Some pressure is needed for drama’s sake. If the contestant does not spend all 1 million yen in five hours, he must return the full amount; and anything he spends above 1 million yen comes out of his own pocket.
The show always opens the same way. Writer Yasutaka Tsutsui, dressed conspicuously in a tuxedo, approaches a man on a Tokyo street, asks him what he is doing, and then offers him the 1 million yen. The man must respond immediately, and if the answer is affirmative, Tsutsui takes the cash out of his pocket and puts it in the man’s hands, explaining the rules (no gifts, no gambling, no paying off debts, no sex-related services). A TV crew quickly wires the guy for sound, the clock starts ticking, and someone with a camera follows him for the next five hours.
There have been 14 programs so far. The reputation of the show has spread to the point where the contestants on the last two installments said they had dreamed of being selected, thinking that they would know exactly how they would spend their money. Several weeks ago, the subject was a young man who had just moved to Tokyo from Aomori, and he said, “I couldn’t understand why the men [on the show] used so much time to spend the money.”
He found out. The young man first went to Akihabara and bought a computer, even though he admitted in voice-over he knows nothing about computers and doesn’t really need one (he was unemployed at the time but trained as a confectioner). You could hear the cowed tone in his voice as he tried to make sense of the salesman’s explanation of operating systems. He then bought a set of DVDs, but by that time more than an hour had passed and he still had 700,000 yen to unload. In a mild panic, he wasted 45 minutes in a cab changing his mind as to whether he wanted to go to Aoyama or Ginza. He ended up in Aoyama where he bought a Rolex, and then wasted some more time in a bookstore looking through guidebooks. Then he hired another cab to take him to the waterfront where he took a suite in an expensive hotel and had 11 minutes to wolf down a room-service meal. He barely made it.
The young man’s choices betrayed a lack of clear thinking: a computer he didn’t need, a predictable luxury purchase (the Rolex) and the fulfillment of a dream (the hotel) that was less than satisfying owing to the circumstances. During the last hour, as he rushed from one place to another, he kept saying to himself, “I’m going to be punished.” He felt guilty about the money and later said that he didn’t enjoy spending it at all.
In another episode, a 34-year-old man with a steady job and a family eagerly took the challenge and then proceeded to freeze up with indecision. He bought a few expensive gewgaws he didn’t really need, ate alone in a high-end sushi restaurant and bought a case of an expensive “health supplement” that he had “heard” was effective. Afterward, standing in the harsh fluorescent light of the parking garage under his apartment, he despaired over not spending the money “meaningfully.” “The money changed my personality,” he said, and it was obvious from his tone that he didn’t like the changes he felt.
The producers utilize dramatic computer graphics, odd camera angles and an imaginative soundtrack (including that three-note Rachmaninov piano passage Stanley Kubrick used so effectively in “Eyes Wide Shut”), but none of these expressionistic add-ons detract from the show’s reality-TV aim, which is to show that money, as Tsutsui says portentously in the beginning, makes “fools” out of human beings.
Nevertheless, the strongest emotion I usually experience while watching the show is not derision, but pity. The disillusionment that overcomes these men as they try to spend their windfall “meaningfully” is heartbreaking. If there were no conditions attached to the money, they would surely have an easier time of it, but that wouldn’t be television. “Hyakuman Otoko” is as contrived as any other example of reality TV, but it shows directly and without any editorializing that money doesn’t buy happiness. In that sense, it’s plenty real.
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