In the more than three decades I’ve lived here, I have progressed (if that is the right word) from irritation at the oddness of Japanese election campaigns to something like curiosity. How, I once wondered, could anyone choose intelligently among candidates whose “dialogue” with the voters was mostly bowing at train stations and having their names repeated incessantly from moving vans by dulcet-voiced women (whose voices were no longer so dulcet when amped to ear-splitting volume). And when I saw candidates making speeches, with stations again the favored venues, most of their constituents walked by with brisk steps and eyes averted. This was democracy in action?
In 2007, “Senkyo (Campaign),” by U.S.-based documentary filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda, exposed the strangeness of the election process here, with observational footage of subject Kazuhiko Yamauchi, an LDP candidate for Kawasaki city council, hustling doggedly for votes or sucking up to party bigwigs. At the same time, Soda not only highlighted the charmingly eccentric personality of “Yama-san,” but also delivered the sort of uncensored view of party politics not often seen on NHK.
“Campaign” screened widely abroad, including the Forum section of the Berlin International Film Festival, and won a Peabody Award after it was broadcast on PBS in the United States. Now, nearly five years and several films later, Soda is back with “Senkyo 2 (Campaign 2),” with Yamauchi again the focus — at least at the beginning.
Ever the free spirit, Yamauchi decides to run again for city council only four days before the filing deadline. Out of office since the LDP refused to let him defend his short-term seat in 2007, this full-time house-husband and Todai (University of Tokyo) graduate tells Soda that he was inspired to campaign by the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. It is April 2011 and many people in Kawasaki, where radiation levels have doubled, are wearing masks, while tabloid headlines shout the latest developments in the ongoing disaster.
Which raises the question of why Soda is in Kawasaki and not, with dozens of his fellow documentarians, in Tohoku. Doubts about the whole project only intensify when Yamauchi, after pinning up his posters (which use a headshot taken from “Campaign”), announces that he is essentially through campaigning. As an independent with no backers, no staff and no funds beyond his own bank account he can’t afford a headquarters, loudspeaker van or the other trappings of a conventional campaign. Also, he believes the standard rituals of glad-handing and speechifying are pointless or even counterproductive. Instead he says he will limit himself to posters, flyers, postcards and a website — that is, what he calls a “virtual” campaign for the 21st century.
Absent his star, Soda casts about for subjects and, ever resourceful, soon finds them in Yamauchi’s opponents. One breaks off in the midst of greeting commuters to explain to Soda’s camera that he would like to promote his candidacy more substantively, but is hampered by ridiculously restrictive campaign laws. Two other candidates, both backed by the LDP, complain to Soda that he is filming them without permission. Soda (always off-camera) responds that, since they are public figures engaged in tax-supported campaign activities, he has every right to film them, permission or not.
This is all interesting enough, but Yamauchi’s reappearance on camera as election day nears is welcome, since his comments on the election and the issues are both tart and apt (if occasionally self-serving). Why, he asks, aren’t the other candidates talking about Japan’s nuclear policy, when its failures are so clear and present? The LDP guys at least have the excuse of their party’s long support for nuclear energy, but what about the others?
Soda alternates this sort of serious talk with glimpses of Yamauchi’s more human side, including his interactions with his sharply perceptive, patiently supportive wife and his rambunctious 4-year-old son, who dashes about playing the superhero while Daddy is giving a pre-election speech in a hazmat suit. This tableau sums up the semi-absurdity of both Yamauchi’s quixotic campaign and the election in general.
Yes, “Campaign 2″ has too many shots held too long of stone-faced commuters ignoring obsequious candidates, but it also captures the mood in the early days after 3/11 well, when many Japanese, including the film’s politicians, carried on as usual, while feeling afraid and concerned about the anything-but-usual events up north, including the radioactive particles still pouring from the damaged reactors.
That ambiguous moment of solidarity and fear has long since vanished; Soda’s valuable film shows us why it is still worth remembering.
Fun fact: “Campaign 2″ star Kazuhiko Yamauchi entered the University of Tokyo on his fifth try and needed seven years to graduate. Does this perseverance portent yet another city council run — and “Campaign 3″?