The Japanese doc “Campaign” premiered in Berlin and is now on a tightly-booked festival tour round the world. DOX met the director Soda Kazuhiro at SXSW in Austin, Texas.

Sarah K. Adams
Sarah K. Adams is a film journalist and practicing psychotherapist based in the U.S.

photoIn early March, Austin, Texas, was overrun by SXSW. Attendees from all over the world had only one, maybe two, or sometimes three things in mind: films, new media technology, and music. ‘South-By’, as it is known to locals and veteran registrants, encompasses SXSW Film (9-17 March), SXSW Interactive (9-13 March), and SXSW Music (14-18 March). For those with an all-access Platinum Badge and the stamina to attend all three sections, the SXSW trinity was a fantasy come true.

For documentary fans, the offerings were plentiful and thematically diverse. In addition to the films in the Documentary Competition, there was a strong documentary presence in many of the non-competitive sections: in Premieres, in Emerging Visions (the experimental film section), in Lone Star Stories (featuring films by Texan filmmakers), in Special Screenings, and in the exclusively rock-doc programme, 24 Beats Per Second.

Of the documentaries in competition, some of the most crisp, entertaining, and thematically compelling films won awards. Jennifer Venditti garnered the Documentary Competition Award for Billy the Kid, a warm-hearted, super-hip, classic-rock infused portrait of an endearing 15-year-old boy whose social dysfunction and razor-sharp mind collide head-on with the trials and tribulations of high school and true love. The Documentary Audience Award went to Marlo Poras for Run Granny Run, a witty, affectionate portrayal of the campaign for the U.S. Senate by 94-year-old New Hampshire Democrat Doris Granny D Haddock.

Harris Fishman’s Cat Dancers

Harris Fishman’s Cat Dancers captured a Special Jury Award with its delicate account of the love triangle among members of a professional exotic animal act whose lives are violently disrupted by their star white tiger. Another Special Jury Award went to Audience of One, Michael Jacobs’ disturbingly funny chronicle of the trials of San Francisco minister Richard Gazowsky, who, despite having virtually no film background, enlists the aid of his family and parishioners as crewmembers on a USD 200,000,000 production of what he promises will be “the greatest film of all time”, modestly pitched as “Star Wars meets the Ten Commandments”.

Of the Documentary Competition programme at SXSW, though, one film was truly breathtaking: Soda Kazuhiro’s Campaign. Having premiered at Berlin 2007, this pure vérité epic follows the campaign of Yamauchi Kazuhiko, a political neophyte hand-picked by members of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party to run for a vacant city council seat in Kawasaki City, adjacent to Tokyo. Ill-suited to the thorny political culture to which he must quickly acclimate if he is to win, Yamauchi navigates both the actual street campaign as well as the murky underworld of entrenched party hierarchies and unspoken expectations. No plot description, though, can do justice to the subtlety, humour, and enigmatic beauty of this film. We spoke with the vibrant Mr Kazuhiro between screenings of Campaign at SXSW.

Soda Kazuhiro about Campaign

Kazuhiro Soda

DOX: How difficult was it to get access to Yamauchi and the LDP? Were there problems being able to shoot the campaign from the inside?

SK: Yamauchi is a friend from college, so when I learned that he was running for office, I asked him if we could shoot the campaign, and he said “Sure, sure,”- he loves attention. We both talked to the LDP, and they had no problem. All of a sudden, I had access to everything behind-the-scenes, because the LDP was open to everything. They even started to feel that they had to help me. For example, when I missed some events, they asked me, “Where were you?” So they were really welcoming. And people were not shy in front of the camera, which was surprising. I thought Japanese people would be more shy, but they were so natural. I did not feel that they realized I was there, most of the time.

How did you manage to blend in while you were shooting?

SK: I was trying to be invisible. I tried to be like water or air in the room, so that people would just forget about me and become themselves and do whatever they do all of the time. It worked, partly because I was only one person, I was using my small camera, and I was recording sound at the same time. I did not have any big lights, and I did not ask questions, so they were not even conscious of my presence after a while. They were so used to me that they were relaxed all the time.

You mentioned that Yamauchi was an unlikely candidate.

SK: He has no experience in politics, and he is pretty liberal, bohemian. The LDP, on the other hand, is a very solid, typical Japanese organization. It is almost like a symbol of tight-knit Japanese society. So it was a mismatch to see this candidate with this party, and a mismatch-match is very good for a movie: it creates conflict, it creates drama. Also, I was able to escape all the clichés. If it had been a typical setting, it would have been too cliché, but because Yamauchi is so different from a regular candidate, I got to play with some interesting dynamics, and interesting turns of events. So I was lucky, I think.

Kazuhiro Soda

Were you surprised by the course things took during the campaign?

SK: First of all, I had no idea what was actually going on. I did not anticipate anything that happened. I had no time to research, because when I learned that Yamauchi was running, his campaign was already starting, so I had to move quickly and shoot it. I just jumped in, and recorded what ever was happening. So yes, it was a constant surprise. It was a constant re-examination of what I was seeing.

In fact, I did not really understand what was going on until I started editing. Maybe a few months later I started to see the structure, I started to see how campaigning works. That was when the movie was born. It was not born when I was shooting, it was not born when I started editing, but it was born when I found the structure of the movie and found out how the LDP campaign was actually structured.

Campaigning Japanese Style

There is a great scene in the film in which Yamauchi and other LDP representatives are campaigning at dawn in a neighbourhood in which no one is in the street or anywhere in sight. The audience at SXSW found this scene really funny. Is that a normal way of campaigning in Japan?

SK: That is the norm in Japan. I was not sure why they campaign that way actually, because there is no one around who is listening. I have been living in New York for thirteen years, so my eyes are a little bit different from those of a Japanese person living in Japan. I see it from a kind of different perspective, and I found it pretty funny, too, that they do that.

I think that the mentality that supports this kind of action is “you do your best.” No matter what, you do your best. It is not about consequences, it is about process. In Japan, even though nobody listens, we do things like that, and that is a beautiful thing. So, it is more of a matter of needing to perform an action to prove something. Yamauchi needed to prove to the other members of the party that he was serious, that he was doing the best he could.

Campaigning for office is not just about publicity then, it is clearly about models of behaviour?

SK: I think so. I think there are so many rules and traditions, as you can see in the movie. They are not necessarily rational. Many things are just for the sake of tradition. That is pretty prevalent in Japanese culture, not only in campaigning, but also in corporate culture, in school culture, and in the community. For example, in the film, Yamauchi’s wife asks, “Why do we wear gloves?” Yamauchi says, “I don’t know.” Even though he does not know why he wears gloves during the campaign, he wears them anyway.

What about the final scene of the film? It is quite ominous.

SK: The last scene is probably the most important for me. I hate people walking out during the movie, because I want them to stay until the end! I want to make it open to various interpretations. This movie is certainly not black and white, it is very grey. It is very difficult to articulate the reality I was dealing with, actually. I did not want to make a film in which I said, “This is it: everything is clear,” and then you forget about it. I wanted to leave some impression with the audience so that they say, “What was that?”.

Providing Questions rather than Answers

So, you have high expectations of your audience?

SK: Yes. To me a movie is about impact. A movie is about a question, not the answer. I wanted to throw this rock to the audience, and it is up to the audience how they accept it. It might be a pretty hard rock! I am not giving them instructions about how to see it. Rather, I want them to observe it and think about it themselves. My audience needs to be active rather than passive, so I am asking for a lot of work. I am sure that many of the audience members will be exhausted after they see my movie, but that is exactly what I intend, actually. This is totally the opposite of many filmmakers who cater to the needs of the audience. They try to entertain. I want to be entertaining, too. The tendency of documentary filmmaking now, or of film in general, is towards making things shorter, more concise, to the point, light, and clear. I am trying to go the other way: to be longer, heavier, complex, and not to the point.

All of those marketable qualities?

SK: Exactly. What is surprising, though, is that I am getting a lot of offers. I did not expect that PBS was going to air it nationally. Also, it is part of the Democracy Project which is being put together by BBC, Arte, TV2.

Was it originally conceived of as part of the Democracy Project?

SK: I think that they tried to develop a film from Japan, but it did not work out. Then they were desperately looking for a film from Japan. I met Nick Fraser from BBC at the IFP Market, and as soon as he saw my poster, he said, “This is it. I need this.” He did not even know the premise of the movie. So I gave him a DVD, and a couple of weeks later he called me and said, “Do you want to show it in 25 countries?” I said, “Of course!”.

Japanese Media Attention

“When does the film open in Japan?”

SK: In June. I premiered it in Berlin, and some distributors from Japan were interested in acquiring the rights to open theatrically in Japan. They all said, “We’ve got to do it right now, because the interest is really high right now.” It is an election year in Japan. I did not even know that this would happen until two or three weeks ago at Berlin.

What has been the response in the Japanese Media?

SK: Because Berlin was the world premiere of the film, there were a lot of Japanese media. One of the most powerful news personalities, Tsukushi, who is kind of the Dan Rather of Japan, did a 4 or 5-minute story on my movie in prime time. So people started calling and emailing me, inquiring about the movie. Also people started calling Yamauchi, too, to do interviews. So right now the Japanese media are very interested.

The Japanese media found it interesting that this election campaign in Japan is so local that even the local newspaper does not cover it. It has almost no journalist value, I think, and I knew it from the beginning. So all of a sudden this local election is getting this huge attention from the world. I think they are wondering why, and also, because of the interest that was generated outside Japan, now they are really interested. That was part of my strategy: in order to create attention in Japan, it needed to do well outside Japan.

Inspired by Wiseman

Is there a particular filmmaker who has influenced you?

SK: When I saw Frederick Wiseman’s “Meat” for the first time, I was blown away. It was exactly what I wanted to do. I am a vegetarian, and I had wanted to do a film like that for a long time, actually. I found out that Wiseman had done it in 1976! I had been thinking, “Can a film be made without narration, without interviews, without music?”

I had already made 40 or 50 documentaries for TV, and I was pretty fed up with all of these elements. I felt that documentaries could be much simpler, and stronger, if we throw away those techniques. So, when I saw Meat for the first time I thought, “Wow! Somebody is doing this.” I should have known, but I did not know that until recently. I wanted to see every movie he had ever made, so I went to the New York Public Library every day and started watching his films. Then, at Berlin, people compared my film to Wiseman’s new film “State Legislature”, which was also at Berlin. That was wonderful for me.