Documentary filmmaker Kazuo Hara tackles serious subjects with serious intent, yet his films are nothing like the commendable-but-dull documentaries so common here.

His best-known film, “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” from 1987, focuses on a veteran who fought in New Guinea in World War II and visits his former comrades to extract confessions of war crimes, at times violently. Watching this ticking human time bomb is as riveting as any thriller, but is also revealing about the brutal nature of the war.

Hara uses a similar strategy of focusing on a charismatic, if eccentric, individual to illustrate larger issues in “Reiwa Uprising,” a documentary about the campaign of actor-turned-politician Taro Yamamoto’s Reiwa Shinsengumi party in last year’s general election.

Reiwa Uprising (Reiwa Ikki)
Director Kazuo Hara
Run Time 248 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Sept. 11

The film’s main subject, however, is not Yamamoto, but Ayumi Yasutomi, a transgender woman and professor at the University of Tokyo, who was one of the party’s 10 candidates for the Upper House.

She campaigns alongside a horse (which is walked, not ridden) and musicians who tootle and drum in the background while she speaks. The effect is like the chindonya (street musicians) who used to play outside newly refurbished pachinko parlors: fun, but as a PR ploy, odd.

I expected this act to wear thin long before the documentary’s nearly four-hour run time was up, but the film, as Hara says off-screen, aims to be entertaining — and it succeeds surprisingly well. Seeing it at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, I was impressed by how “Reiwa Uprising” held the audience’s attention — despite its bladder-testing length — but also how it highlights moments and statements that eloquently make the case for its subject’s importance.

The film follows Yasutomi and other candidates day by day in the run-up to the election. Whether speaking on street corners to curious children and their moms or at big rallies to thousands of spectators, Yasutomi stays calm, collected and on message with two slogans: “Protect our children” and “Bring horses into the cities.” This may sound simplistic, but, over the course of the film, we see her make a broader critique on Japanese education, capitalism and politics. On the stump, however, Yasutomi can sound more like a university lecturer spinning abstractions than a politician speaking to her listeners’ real-life problems.

Each of the other Reiwa Shinsengumi candidates has their own pet issues, including Eiko Kimura and Yasuhiko Funago, who rely on wheelchairs for mobility and advocate for disabled individuals. Most, including Yasutomi, admit they have little to no chance of winning, but they hope to raise awareness of the issues important to them through their campaigns. The most passionate is Teruko Watanabe, a single mother who tells Hara she was once homeless and depressed to the point of contemplating suicide. “Something is wrong with this society,” she says.

As the film begins, Watanabe is the hotly emotional counterweight to the coolly intellectual Yasutomi, but as a succession of security guards tells the latter and her supporters to move on from this public place or that (an indignity never suffered by her better-financed LDP rivals), a feistier side emerges. Also, when Yasutomi returns to her hometown of Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, she breaks down in tears as she laments the vanished landmarks of her childhood, victims of relentless modernization. And her audience, who know those landmarks too, cry with her.

By the end, Yasutomi had my vote. And so did the probing, truth-telling, easy-to-enjoy “Reiwa Uprising.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.