In THE DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMAN (1992), a con-man-turned-candidate-for-the-Congress (Eddie Murphy) runs the shameless election campaign on a low budget. He drives a car fitted with loudspeakers around the town, just to sell his ‘name’. “Jeff Johnson, the name you know”. He figures that most voters wouldn’t care and vote for him simply because the name sounds familiar (Jeff Johnson is the name of a dead Congressman). He cruises around the town in a van, advertising his name through the speakers in different accents to appeal to different ethnic groups. Well, THE DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMAN was a comedy. It was supposed to be funny. When I saw that scene back in 1992, I couldn’t laugh. Not because it was an awful, poorly-made movie (well, it is).
Because it is exactly the way the election is run in Japan.

I had never seen any campaign car running around the town yelling the name of the candidate in States. But in Japan, it is almost a seasonal event. Mayor election. Governor election. Diet members. These cars start running around the town at 7 o’clock in the morning until 7 or 8 in the evening. The professional female staff just keep yelling the candidate’s name once per three seconds. At the speed of 40 km/h, that’s one name dropping per 10 m, roughly. However, the name is just a name, and if you want to know what that name really stands for, you are stuck. Look for the candidate’s agenda, political standings, or views on a certain issue, then you will get some words like “reform”. And that’s just about it. What reform? Oh, you don’t ask those things.
You see how this mechanism works in Kazuhiro Soda’s CAMPAIGN (2007). It is the documentary about one man, Kazuhiko Yamauchi, a rookie candidate running for a seat in Diet. His battleground is Kawasaki city, the heart of Tokyo suburb and heavy industries, where all political parties and lobbyists slash each other’s throat to get the powerful mandate. Yamauchi had no prior experience in any form of politics, but applied for new recruits in Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the major and largest political party in Japan. Whatever the reason might have been, but LDP picked him as an official LDP candidate for the seat in Diet vacated by their former member. The film follows the steps of this naive candidate from the day one of the campaign.
It is apparent from the start that the campaign office is not his, but LDP’s. The veteran staffs and members tell him what to do, how to behave, where to go, and what to say. He carries a flag with his name on it, wears a sash with his name on it, and drives a car with his name on it. He always carries a microphone and a speaker, so that he could speak his name once in every three seconds. He has to attend kindergarden’s gym event in that outfit. He has to stand in front of local train stations and keep speaking his name to a pack of indifferent commuters. LDP is a strict hierarchal organization, and it nurtures the culture of supporters. His blood needs to be dyed with the color of that culture.
The film has no voice-over narration, no explanatory intertitles, and just keeps recording the events this young man encounters and people around him. Some people may find this approach somewhat boring. I did get tired of looking at repetitive, minimalistic series of events over and over. Souda, the director of the film, employs the approach “observational cinema” or cinema verite, in which the creator (camera) tries to maintain minimum presence in the state of affairs, keeping the “objectivity” as much as possible. It seems the technique miraculously succeeds in this film to large extent. Observed people do speak and act as if there were no camera in the scene.
Also, there is a flavor of voyeurism. Running for an election itself is a public affair, of course. We think people are well aware of the camera, so they would try to hide their private emotions under the friendly smiles and hand shakes. But every moment of it bears private feeling of every individual involved. Some are disguised, some are naked, and mostly embarrassing. The eyes, the postures, or the voices convey more signals than they think they are transmitting. Though these may be involuntary, still it feels like peeping into other people’s bathroom. Souda’s camera effectively captures these moments throughout the film.
This was the first feature length film directed by Souda. He subsequently directed four more films in the same style. I suspect, he carefully chooses his theme suitable to his directorial style. In this very first film, I think his approach works. It elicits the uneasiness, unsettling discomfort, as we cruise through the streets of this overcrowded city. The camera is anomaly, like a virus in the body, but not yet detected by self-defense mechanism. It may be somewhat arcane to foreign viewers, because many of Japanese sensitivity would be lost in other languages. With all this, I would recommend this to anyone who is skeptical about democracy as it is. It may not enlighten your view on Japanese politics, but it will make you re-think about your own nation’s political process. What kind of power structure exists in the process? Is PR campaign getting out of control? Why do they need so much money? Is someone like Yamauchi able to run a successful campaign with or without big party support? Is it a good thing?

It seems, Souda’s last film, CAMPAIGN II, the sequel to this film, must have been a challenge to his style. Many people in the film, I read, reacted to the presence of a camera, after watching this original CAMPAIGN. An observer disturbs the state being observed, you know, just like quantum physics. More interestingly, this film ignited a series of political campaign documentaries of the same vein, chasing the controversial candidates in the similar style (MUNEOISM (2012), RIKKOUHO (2013)). In fact, such films may disturb the current state of election process, which may destabilize the equilibrium of whole political process. It may be a good thing, if it encourages the debate on real issues other than yelling one’s name.

When this original CAMPAIGN was screened at the film festival in Germany, Yamauchi, now an elected Diet member, attended the festival in this campaign outfit, with his name sash, flags and all that. According to Yamauchi, Germans thought the film was a very funny comedy, and Yamauchi, a very natural comedian. Eddie Murphy’s THE DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMAN is a comedy, so why not this? What they didn’t know then was CAMPAIGN II will be more radical in wardrobe department. Yamauchi wears a fully-equipped radiation protective suits in the election campaign.

Reality is surreal.

Produced and Directed by Kazuhiro Souda
UPDATE: You can watch CAMPAIGN on amazon instant video.

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