Observations on J-Democracy

By Owen Armstrong

campaign-kazuhiko-soda.jpgCampaign, 2007

A critical success at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival, Kazuhiro Soda’s Campaign is a strikingly sharp and insightful documentary detailing the structure and influence of Japan’s Liberal Democrat Party (LDP). In selecting Kazuhiko Yamauchi – a candidate with no political background, Kazuhiro’s film is at once unassuming and incisive – an expose of the mechanics of Japanese democracy and a unique study of the traits and characteristics attributed to Japanese culture. Aside from its subject matter, Campaign is a notable example of observational documentary filmmaking, echoing the Direct Cinema style of the Maysles Brothers in its abstinence from any political agenda, Instead, Kazuhiro allows “Yama-san” to revel in the moment, speaking volumes for the way that Japanese Democracy is manufactured and the degree to which the most traditional values penetrate and dictate Japanese culture.

Owen Armstrong: How did you hear of Yamauchi's campaign and how did you then approach him?

Kazuhiro Soda: In September 2005, in my New York apartment, I was packing my suitcase to go to Japan to shoot Mental, an observational documentary about mentally ill patients. Then, I received an e-mail from an old classmate from Tokyo University and learned that our mutual friend Kazuhiko Yamauchi was running for office backed by Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

I was really shocked by the news since as far as I know Yamauchi is a very liberal, Bohemian type of guy – almost the opposite of a typical LDP candidate. We were classmates, but he never showed up to classes. He was living in this dorm occupied by left wing students, and we were always hanging out in his room drinking beer and talking about girls. He failed to enter the university five times, so he was much older than me. And since he never goes to classes, he failed to move up to the next grade for three times!

On the other hand, the LDP is a party which represents Japanese traditional values. It is known for its hierarchal structure, and to me, it's almost like a symbol of tight-knitted Japanese organization. It was obvious that Yamauchi and the LDP was a big mismatch. I sensed that something interesting would happen if I followed him around during his political campaign. I decided to spend some time shooting his documentary during my stay in Japan.

OA: Your film is a very intimate portrait, not just of Yamauchi, but also the Japanese political system. It seems unlikely that a filmmaker would be offered such freedom and access in many other countries. Why do you think this is?

KS: Basically, I was underestimated. Although I told everybody that it was going to be a documentary movie, nobody believed it since I was shooting alone with my small camera. I didn't use any lights, and I didn't even have an assistant or a car to move around. I must have looked like a student. Even Yamauchi was really surprised when I told him that the movie was invited to Berlin Film Festival.

campaign-kazuhiko-soda-2.jpgCampaign, 2007

I mean, it's actually a part of my strategy. Some documentary filmmakers try to use the presence of camera to dig up people's secrets and inner feelings. There are things that people express only because the camera is there. In such cases, filmmakers emphasize the camera's presence. But in my case, I try to capture peoples' natural, unconscious behaviour. In order to do that, my camera should be as invisible as possible. It's better for me to look disarming.

OA: Considering Yamauchi's non-existent political background, how much is this a reflection of Japanese Democracy and the way in which local elections are conducted?

KS: I believe the way Yamauchi's campaign was conducted is very typical of local elections in Japan. Yamauchi is a political novice, but the LDP simply applied their campaign strategy to his because that has been their winning formula for the past 50 years. So, what you see in Campaign looks very familiar and ordinary to most Japanese people.

OA: In your film, you've observed the rigorous nature of the campaign process in great detail, highlighting the degree of control present throughout. In which other ways is the election process regulated?

KS: Japanese election laws are very extensive and strict. For example, the duration of each election campaign is set by laws. Yamauchi's campaign was limited to 9 days because it was for a city council seat. The amount of money spent on campaigns is also regulated because otherwise, the rich have big advantages over other candidates. For the same reasons, the use of TV or radio commercials is also prohibited. The number of brochures they can distribute is also restricted.

To prevent corruption, candidates are not allowed to provide supporters food or goods with monetary values. What's funny is that you're not allowed to serve coffee in the office to supporters and guests although you could serve Japanese green tea. For the Japanese, green tea is like water, so it's not considered to be a bribe.

campaign-kazuhiko-soda-3.jpgCampaign, 2007

OA: In Yamauchi, Campaign exposes and reinforces the apparent contradictions between Japanese eccentricity, ritual and tradition. Do you think that he is a unique example of this, or is his behaviour commonplace for political party candidates?

KS: If Yamauchi was somebody who perfectly represented the party's tradition and culture, the film would have been dull and uninteresting. I decided to shoot it because I knew Yamauchi wouldn't fit in easily. Every time he gets scolded by party superiors, the values and methods of the party get exposed.

OA: How was the film received in Japan and did this contrast with how it was received elsewhere?

KS: It was well received in Japan just like in other countries. The only difference is that the Japanese felt like they were watching themselves in the mirror. Actually, I felt the same because I'm Japanese, too! So, while non-Japanese can simply laugh about many scenes, the Japanese are left with mixed feelings. We are forced to rethink about the culture and the democracy we have.

campaign-kazuhiko-soda-4.jpgCampaign, 2007

OA: You mentioned that Campaign was made mid-way through the production of another documentary – Mental. Can you elaborate on this?

KS: Mental is a feature length documentary about mentally ill patients in Japan. To discuss mental illness is a taboo subject there, and most of the patients are not considered a part of Japanese society. The aim of this documentary is to ask them to come out of the closet and really address them as fellow human beings.

In Campaign, there is a scene where Yamauchi's supporters gossip about a mentally ill woman standing across the street with curiosity and ridicule. One of the reasons I showed that scene is because my next film was going to be Mental. People like that invisible woman who is totally looked down upon by the society are the protagonists of Mental.

Owen Armstrong is a projectionist and filmmaker. He lives in London.