|Released: June 9th, 2007
Director: Kazuhiro SODA
Run Time: 120 min
The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) was founded in 1955 as a center to right-wing, conservative political party. Since that time, the LDP has enjoyed incredible success and until 2009, ruled almost continuously for 54 years. After a victory in the Japan general election, 2005, the LDP held an absolute majority in the Japanese House of Representatives and formed a coalition government with the New Komeito Party.1 In recent years the appeal of the party has faded along with a struggling economy, but the methods for running a campaign have remained the same. In Japan, candidates who run for office generally don’t rise naturally from the grass roots. Many are molded into politicians by extremely organized election campaigns.2 This process is on display in a documentary by 36-year-old film director Kazuhiro Soda. Campaign tracks the run of a candidate for a municipal assembly election.
Using his own money, Soda shot the documentary during a two-week stay in Japan. Soda trailed his old University of Tokyo classmate, 40-year-old Kazuhiko Yamauchi, who was running in a by-election for a Kawasaki Municipal Assembly seat in October 2005 on the ruling LDP ticket. Without narrative, music, sound effects or interviews, the 120-minute documentary shows the transformation of Yamauchi, the owner of a coin and stamp shop, into a politician.3
The film illustrates three obstacles of the Koizumi Administration’s inability to affect political change by using candid conversations to show the effect the declining economy is having on the LDP. Trouble on the international scene is for the most part absent, but most importantly Soda focuses on the resistance within the LDP itself when he captures moments of conversation between Yamauchi and friends, as well as campaign workers who support different constituencies. As these themes are explored and scenes are chosen for inclusion into the film, Soda is able to influence the viewers opinion of Yamauchi and the LDP to one that is less than positive. This all combines to create a film that agrees with scholar David W. Edgington’s conclusions on how Japan will change which questions how relevant the reform government of Prime Minister Koizumi actually is. Edgington’s works make it very clear that despite the apparent sense of uncertainty and even crisis in Japan today, it would be a mistake not to see strong continuities in Japan’s social, political, and economic condition at the beginning of a new century and millennium.4 He argues that Japanese society is certainly changing but that the future is still uncertain.
To begin with Soda’s work, the best illustration of the rapidly declining economic situation is done through narrative when Yamauchi is campaigning on the streets of Kawasaki. Quotes from Yamauchi are particularly revealing when he states that, “nobody wanted to run for the seat (Kawasaki city council seat) because it’s too costly.” This statement from Yamauchi acknowledges the fact that the declining economic situation has affected the choice for other candidates to run in his place. This combined with the fact that Yamauchi has no prior political experience or much charm as a stand-in politician shows how much economics factored into dissuading those who would probably be more capable candidates, from running for the empty seat. In addition to this, Yamauchi is in the middle of the economic mess as well. Two conversations in his car bring his own personal financial situations to light. At one point Soda films Yamauchi as he is being reprimanded by an LDP campaign official for his inability to manage his money and make proper payments to his debtors, who in turn have called the official to complain. He compromises by giving his bank statement and seal over to someone name Ms. Nagai, in order to ensure that his finances will be in more trusted and presumably more capable hands.
Soda’s questioning reveals that Yamauchi is paying for everything out of his own pocket, and that people are sending him invoices, making the situation “rough” for Yamauchi and it points to a general lack of institutional support from the LDP. This first conversation highlights two important elements of the economic status quo. The first being that it is expensive to campaign for the empty seat. Not only has it deterred others from running as has already been established, but has effected Yamauchi’s financial situation as well. Soda makes it apparent that Yamauchi is struggling to make payments to his debtors with the cost of running for the city council seat. The second element this particular scene highlights is the fact that his debtors are dealing with the troubled economy as well. The debtors complaint to the campaign official, shows the desperate situation they are in. Soda’s choice to include this scene shows that everyone is hurting from the weak economy. More qualified candidates refuse to run, and a weak economy effects the voters. In turn, the voters blame the party in power which is the LDP, for the messy economic environment. Thus the LDP is cast in a more negative light and their position of power is weakened. In another scene when Yamauchi and his wife Sayuri are riding home after campaigning in the streets of Kawasaki. Sayuri remarks that, “if they lose the election, they will be totally broke.” Yamauchi and Sayuri both agree on this point, and it reveals how dire the financial situation is for both of them. They are banking everything on a position that Yamauchi is severely unqualified for, which emphasizes the scary economic reality for the both of them, as well as the desperate situation the LDP is dealing with. Since Yamauchi is severely limited in his qualifications, the LDP turning to him to fill the vacant seat shows that economics removed more qualified candidates from consideration. The only other options would be for the LDP to concede the seat to an opposing party, or have a candidate run who could be financially supported by the LDP. The least risky prospect in this regard was to endorse a self-paying candidate in Yamauchi. He is using his own money to campaign, as he is not allowed to use LDP money, or except donations as he is yet to be elected. Thus given economics, the LDP would rather have an unqualified candidate run, than pay to back someone else who may be more qualified. In these scenes, Soda makes it clear that those who potentially could have been candidates in Yamauchi’s place, as well as Yamauchi himself, the LDP, and others, are all dealing with the obstacle of the declining economic situation in Japan.
Resistance within the LDP is highlighted as well. Critics of the Koizumi reform are prevalent. Yamauchi who has been hand selected to fill the empty city council seat is an embodiment of the Koizumi reforms. In a speech prior to Koizumi’s arrival, Yamauchi explains that he, “shares the same passions for reforms,” and even goes on to preface this statement with the comment that people have told him his face looks like the Prime Minister’s. Immediately following Yamauchi’s speech, the promise that the “Koizumi led LDP” will continue to advance reform is reinforced by the Koizumi camp. Soda includes a close up shot of Yamauchi’s banner as it is conveniently left hanging while Koizumi speaks and this emphasizes that Yamauchi is supporting his cause whether Koizumi specifically makes the statement or not. In these short minutes, Soda demonstrates that Yamauchi is strongly aligned with the Koizumi effort. With this established, any resistance towards Yamauchi can be interpreted as resistance towards Koizumi’s or the party’s reforms as well. Numerous instances of this resistance are captured in the film. Edgington points out that many critics of the Koizumi reform movement supported other constituencies. One of Soda’s selected scenes confirms this when Yamauchi points out that there are already 3 city councilmen pulling from the Miyamae district constituency, and that in 2 years, all four of them will be competing for the same votes. Further, The LDP ordered the constituency to support Yamauchi in this particular election; however, this will no longer be the case in 2 years. The Miyamae constituency will undoubtedly support their own candidates in two years time and with these scenes, Soda is able to bring the second obstacle of resistance within the LDP to light. This is further reinforced in the film when Soda captures the forced supporters of the Yamauchi camp in candid moments as they attempt to organize support for Yamauchi. The phone list of Mr. Mochida’s Supporters Association (who is one of the existing city councilmen) is used to invite individuals to a rally for Yamauchi out of necessity given that Yamauchi does not have one. This moment shows that supporters for other candidates are being forced to utilize the “votes” of other candidates to enhance the popularity of Yamauchi at the then current time. However, these supporters will return to Mochida when the next election arrives.
The point is confirmed by campaign workers who comment that they won’t be able to help Yamauchi in the next election and that this particular election is only a “one-shot-deal” because they are being forced by the LDP to support Yamauchi, who is pushing Koizumi’s reforms. The worker’s admit that they will “vote for their own sensei next time”. The resistance is forceful and in no way obscured or hidden. The selection of these scenes by Soda make the obstacle of resistance within the LDP and the accompanied internal strife the most problematic of the three obstacles. Economics can be fixed and adjusted, international perceptions can change and be enhanced (our own problems with this and the change on the international scene after the election of President Obama is evidence enough towards this possibility); but, loyalties and party affiliation and subsequent support is a different beast. The conversations that Soda captures on film are a testament to this statement. Support for Yamauchi will not last, and only exists because of an order from the LDP, and the lack of candidates to fill a vacant seat.
Although the film is an unscripted documentary, the scene selection and the manner in which they are presented by Soda help to influence our opinions of the LDP. Soda uses many scenes where Yamauchi is reprimanded and told how to act properly as a candidate for the LDP. At a rally, one LDP official is telling Yamauchi how to posture himself, and to “not turn his back towards voters and to be more conscious of his angles.” The manner in which this direction is delivered and accepted is representative of the relationship between Yamauchi and the LDP.
The angle that Soda takes in this regard is also interesting. The camera is aimed in the direction of Yamauchi so that the LDP official is behind him while instructing him to face the voters. This angle forces the viewer to see that Yamauchi’s back is turned towards the official. What this does is make the viewer feel a disconnect between Yamauchi and the LDP on a personal level. Yamauchi is like a puppet being manipulated by the LDP; the puppeteer is pulling the strings from behind and giving “stage direction”, while telling the puppet he is really his own man. This point is furthered by Soda when Yamauchi is reprimanded by a campaign official for arriving at a rally 30 minutes early. The LDP official tells Yamauchi that he cannot act in that manner because it is “his” campaign. This particular scene is amusing because the campaign is everything but “Yamauchi’s campaign”. The idea that the campaign and seat actually belongs to Yamauchi is fed to him by the LDP, and the viewer is continually left with the notion and question of who really is pulling all the strings. However, Yamauchi admits that he is a “parachute candidate” and was asked to quickly move from Tokyo to Kawasaki in order to be eligible to fill the vacant seat for the LDP. His acceptance of his role shows that Yamauchi is a willing to play the role of the “puppet candidate” and Soda’s choice to included these scenes in his documentary make Yamauchi look like a weak and powerless man, who is incapable of accomplishing anything on his own. It begs to question what Yamauchi gets out of allowing himself to be filmed in these moments. But it may be that Yamauchi is so entrenched in the instrumentalization of the LDP political machine that he is oblivious to the fact that Soda makes him look like a joke when he is caught on film exercising and jumping up and down in a suit and tie, all while wearing his giant white banner across his chest with his name and an LDP endorsement on it. In these instances, Yamauchi looks like a ridiculous mechanism of the LDP and Soda does well to capture it all on film. The LDP as an institution begins to feel like a controlling political body. Soda is able to show that the LDP, which has been in power for decades, is stringent in its methods and little deviation is allowed or tolerated. Candidates don’t run for the LDP, the LDP runs them. Strangely, the controlling nature of the LDP begins to feel like communism. Soda’s choice to interlace shots of the campaigning Communist Party of Japan throughout the film prompts the viewer to second guess the methods and controlling nature of the LDP. Are the LDP’s methods a bit like communism? In some ways the answer is yes; they pick and choose their own candidates, Yamauchi must do what he is told and what is in the best interest of the LDP’s agenda, and in the end he is just a man with no experience who is playing the role of a puppet and supporting Koizumi’s reforms. But the overall feel of Soda’s production is in many ways critical of Japan’s entire political system and the other parties depicted in the film all seem to be following in the footsteps of the LDP in terms of operation. “When I decided to shoot the film, this idea struck me — observing an election campaign by the LDP, the most successful political party in the history of Japanese democracy, would almost mean observing the nature of democracy in Japan,” Soda said in a recent interview.5
The selection of scenes and shots by Soda and the manner in which they are interlaced shows that he does agree with Edgington’s conclusion. The fight over reform is foreshadowed by Soda with his use of scenes where not only the Communist Party of Japan is campaigning, but the Democratic Party of Japan is as well. The fact that Soda does show Yamauchi winning the election in the end shows that the LDP is in a decline and change is underway in a roundabout manner. Despite the victory, it is important to note the time Soda spends on capturing every moment of the victory. A win by the a disorganized Yamauchi, who even arrives to his own victory rally late, shows that the public is slow to change as Edgington points out. Yamauchi is elected as an LDP endorsed candidate despite his inadequacies. Additionally, the manner in which Yamauchi wins is by the slimmest of margins. The night of the vote count, Soda films LDP officials as they remark that the race is too close to call. At one point an official even makes the comment the they are “struggling” to indicate that Yamauchi is failing to pull away with authority. These elements all come together to show that change is underway, and like Edgington says, the way it will play out is not so clear cut. Despite the decades of control by the LDP, the narrow margin of victory and factions within the campaign show that change is in fact underway in Japan. And just as Edgington leaves the reader with the thought that there is a lack of a single and well defined goal, Soda does the same with his film by utilizing moments of Yamauchi’s short run as a puppet of the now defunct LDP.
2008 – Adolf Grimme Awards, Germany – Outstanding Individual Achievement
2009 – Peabody Award – (Laboratory X, P.O.V./American Documentary and Center for Asian American Media (CAAM))
Astaire (2007) (Japan) (theatrical)
Laboratory X (2007) (Japan) (theatrical)
Kinokuniya (2007) (Japan) (DVD)
Nihon Eiga Satellite Broadcasting (2010) (Japan) (TV)
Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) (2008) (USA) (TV) (broadcast premiere)
Aspect ratio: 1.78 : 1
1. Opening paragraph statistics from; Wikipedia. “Liberal Democratic Party (Japan).” Accessed February 18, 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_Democratic_Party_(Japan).
2. “Documentary Traces ‘Ritual’ of Japan Election Campaign.” UCLA Asia Institute. Accessed Feb 19, 2011. http://www.asiamedia.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=70016
3. Section from Ibid.
4. Edgington, David W., Japan at the Millennium: Joining Past and Future. University of British Columbia Press: UBC Press, 2003.
5. “Documentary Traces ‘Ritual’ of Japan Election Campaign.” UCLA Asia Institute. Accessed Feb 19, 2011. http://www.asiamedia.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=70016