Shinzo Abe has been with us for so long now, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when Japan’s premiership seemed to rotate as frequently as the membership of AKB48.

Junya Ogawa was one young hopeful who thought he had a shot at the top. On paper, he looked like a solid prospect: a fresh-faced idealist who combined big-picture thinking with a strong grasp of detail, borne of his previous vocation as a bureaucrat.

In “Why You Can’t Be Prime Minister,” filmmaker Arata Oshima follows him over a 17-year period that feels like a marathon test of faith. An early scene of Ogawa delivering his stump speech to an empty rice paddy, without any obvious audience within earshot, sets the tone for the purgatory to come.

Why You Can’t Be Prime Minister (Naze Kimi Wa Soridaijin Ni Narenainoka)
Run Time 119 min.
Language Japanese
Opens June 13

When they first meet in 2003, Ogawa is a boyish 32-year-old rookie, running for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in his native Kagawa Prefecture. He’s deeply sincere, easily moved to tears and seemingly incapable of delivering pithy sound bites.

What he lacks is the skill for backroom maneuvering that’s needed to rise within the ranks. He’s frequently eclipsed by a savvier and less scrupulous Kagawa representative, Yuichiro Tamaki, who actually wins his own seat in elections, rather than scraping through on the proportional representation ballot. When they appear together at a press conference, it’s like looking at two different species.

Oshima — who has a habit of inserting himself into the action whenever possible — encourages his subject to talk at length about his beliefs and his views on contemporary news topics that no longer seem quite so pressing now. There are some rambling discussions during the film’s first half that could probably have been pared down.

The documentary captures the euphoria after the DPJ routed the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in 2009. Buoyed by a sense that he’s finally getting somewhere, Ogawa tells the director he dreams of becoming prime minister within five years. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that things don’t work out as planned.

The longest, most interesting section of the film covers the chaotic 2017 general election, in which Japan’s political opposition collapsed and reconstituted itself within the space of just a few weeks. When the leader of his own party decided not to contest the election, Ogawa was forced to run under the banner of Yuriko Koike’s Party of Hope, with the meekly apologetic slogan: “I haven’t changed.”

In one of the most poignant scenes, he finds himself suddenly lost for words, seemingly overwhelmed by the absurdity of what he’s doing. The futility of the campaign is heart-rending to watch — all the more so, given that Ogawa’s family members are with him every step of the way, manning the call center phones and joining him on tours of the district.

There’s real drama here, and Oshima might have had a stronger film if he’d made it the main focus. The shagginess of the rest of the documentary is compounded by a tacked-on coda, which allows it to reflect on the current COVID-19 pandemic, but doesn’t add much else.

As for the quandary posed by the film’s title, Ogawa answers it best himself. Reflecting on Koike and Tamaki’s fortunes, he notes that maybe it isn’t the best politicians who go furthest, it’s the wiliest ones.

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