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.
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.
The film, which will be released June 9 in 17 cities in Japan, captivated audiences at the Berlin International Film Festival in February and later in many other countries.
Political campaigns in Japan usually follow a predictable pattern. Candidates and their supporters stand in a line outside railway stations, bowing deeply to commuters. A sweet-voiced young woman repeatedly intones the candidate’s name, with little mention of what the hopeful public servant stands for.
To the director, who has lived in New York for 14 years, the typical campaign has the appearance of an absurd and hilarious ritual.
“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.
Using his own money, the director shot the documentary during a two-week stay in Japan.
Soda followed around 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.
Yamauchi’s first lesson delivered by his LDP mentors is the golden rule of campaigning: Shout your name every three seconds so that every passerby hears it clearly; look directly into voters’ eyes when you shake their hands, and never talk about policies — even if you have them — because no one is listening anyway.
Clutching a bullhorn and standing by a flag emblazoned with his name, Yamauchi bows deeply and shouts the magic word “reform” over and over again. The by-election in Kawasaki took place soon after then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi won a landslide victory in the Lower House election in September 2005 with the slogan “Don’t stop reform!”
Yamauchi pays close attention as his LDP handlers direct his campaign. He says nothing when it is suggested that his wife, Sayuri, quit her job to support her husband. At this, Sayuri angrily screams, “Where are my human rights?”
In the end, Yamauchi wins the election.
Soda said in the interview that the documentary does not reveal his own opinion of the way the campaign was conducted.
“This film is meant to raise questions from the audience. I want people to think about elections, the Public Offices Election Laws, or democracy by seeing the movie.”
Since moving to New York in 1993 at age 22, Soda has directed a number of TV documentaries and short fiction movies. One of his films, “A Flower and a Woman,” won a Special Commendation at the Canadian Annual International Film Festival in 1995.
His other shorts, 1997′s “The Flicker” and “Freezing Sunlight” in 1996, were nominated for a Silver Lion Award at the Venice International Film Festival in Italy and a New Film Maker’s Award at the Sao Paulo International Film Festival in Brazil. One of his TV documentaries, “Landscape Without Mother,” aired on NHK, winning a Telly Award in 2001.
“Campaign” is his first feature documentary.
Soda traces his interest in elections to the 2000 U.S. presidential race, when George W. Bush beat out Al Gore following a muddled vote count in Florida.
Soda said Yamauchi’s decision to run for the Kawasaki election drove him into action.
“I was interested in the news of ‘Yama-san,’ who is the opposite of the image of the LDP — a very Japanese organization based on a strict seniority system,” Soda said. Yamauchi — an easygoing man who does not care about hierarchical relations — and the LDP appeared to Soda to be “a big mismatch.”
Soda decided he could take a fresh look at Japanese society.
“Since I have lived outside Japan for long time, everything looks fresh and interesting to me — the way Japanese people bow, the trains packed with people, and all the people texting on cell phones.”
Through Yamauchi’s campaign, Soda also examined Japanese culture and behavior. Campaigns follow a clear-cut script and look like rituals. For example, Soda notes that winning candidates invariably shout “Banzai” three times to express their joy.
But the traditional campaign tactics that Yamauchi documented may be passing away as more candidates start to write specific and detailed policy pledges, called “manifestos,” which include numerical targets that can be referred to later.
Soda thinks the trend is natural. “It is rather strange that Japan had not introduced manifestos until recently,” he said.