Documentary Fortnight 2014 Review: CAMPAIGN 2, A Revealing Examination of the Absurdities of Japanese Politics

As the title indicates, Kazuhiro Soda's latest film Campaign 2, the fifth of his self-described "observational documentaries," is a follow-up to his 2007 film Campaign, which followed Kazuhiko "Yama-san" Yamauchi's 2005 run for a city council seat in Kawasaki City, Japan. 

That campaign proved successful, but after one two-year term in office, he fell out of favor with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the political machine that backed his election, and left politics for a few years. Campaign 2 documents Yamauchi's return to the political process; he was driven to do so by the 2011 Fukushima disaster and his anger at the politicians unwilling to discuss nuclear power as an issue in their campaigns. He begins his campaign just a few weeks after the disaster.

In contrast to his first run for office, in which he was essentially a puppet of the LDP, who controlled every aspect of his campaign, Yamauchi this time around is running as an independent with no political machine backing or endorsement, and who must spend his own money to run. Despite these serious disadvantages, he believes he still has a chance to win, as the only candidate of 14 (competing for nine seats) explicitly running on an anti-nuclear power platform. 

"Throw Your Anger at Politics!" is his campaign slogan, one he hopes will resonate with many people. Yamauchi, however, has a curious strategy this time: he refuses to adopt the tactics of the other politicians - using vans with megaphones blaring their names as they drive around, shaking hands with commuters outside train and bus stations - and relies solely on posters and mailed fliers and postcards.

This represented a major challenge to Soda as a filmmaker, since his subject decided to adopt a campaign strategy - really an anti-campaign - of essentially doing nothing. So for a lengthy stretch of the film, Soda observes the campaigns of a few of Yamauchi's opponents. This decision presented another challenge for Soda, one that involves his own filmmaking methodology. 

Soda is a practitioner of the observational, fly-on-the-wall approach to documentary, acting as an unseen observer in the style of such directors as Frederick Wiseman. However, in Campaign 2, Soda himself has become part of the story; the first Campaign film is referred to frequently by Yamauchi and others throughout. And although we never see Soda directly on camera, his presence is clearly noticeable, as we hear him talking to Yamauchi as he follows him, as well as his interactions with the other candidates, two of which we witness strongly object to Soda's filming them.

It is in the scenes with the other candidates where Campaign 2 is at its most caustically revealing of the absurdities of Japanese politics, as well as its funniest. One candidate confronting Soda, objecting to being filmed, claims that Soda is violating his privacy. Soda refuses to back down, asserting that he has every right to film a politician who is out in the street campaigning for public office. 

To underline this point, after refusing to go away, Soda zooms in on a tight close-up shot of his face. A couple of other more receptive candidates use Soda as a sounding board for their frustrations at the content-free methods of campaigning - shaking strangers' hands and repeating their own names over and over into microphones and megaphones - that they feel forced to do in order to get elected.

Despite the humor and the lighter touches of the film, many involving Yamauchi's rambunctious young son, Campaign 2 sounds a sober note of indictment of a political system that refuses to acknowledge even the most dangerous public crises, encouraging voter disillusionment and apathy. The film's final image of Yamauchi has him dressed in a hazmat suit and gas mask for the one stump speech he deigns to give, revealing him as a lonely, quixotic figure no one is really listening to.

Campaign 2 screens at the Museum of Modern Art on February 21 at 7:30 pm and February 22 at 4:30pm as part of Documentary Fortnight 2014, MoMA's annual nonfiction film showcase. For more information on the film, and how to purchase tickets, visit MoMA's website.
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