PBS Premiere: July 29, 2008Check the broadcast schedule »

Film Description

The new documentary Campaign came about by chance. Kazuhiro Soda was preparing to make another film when he learned that an old Tokyo University schoolmate, Kazuhiko Yamauchi, had been selected by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to run for a key city council seat. Sensing an opportunity, Soda quickly got agreement from Yamauchi and the LDP -- perhaps surprisingly, given the candor with which LDP local operations are shown -- to film the campaign. Equipping himself as a one-man film crew, Soda embarked on an experiment in "observational film" as he followed Yamauchi on the Japanese campaign trail for 12 hectic days in October 2005.

Kazuhiko Yamauchi on the phone at his campaign headquarters in Kawasaki.

What tipped Soda off that there was more to the story than met the eye was that his friend was a less-than-ideal candidate. The 40-year-old, self-employed Kazuhiko "Yama-san" Yamauchi (who had failed his college entrance exams five times) had no previous political experience or public recognition. He had no supporters, no program and no time to prepare. Earnest, likeable and modest, he had little if any charisma and no pronounced political views of his own. And yet he had been plucked out of obscurity by the LDP to be its standard-bearer in a tough race that would determine whether the party would retain its dominance of the politically important Kawasaki city council. As Campaign reveals, however, the LDP knew its man -- and the Japanese way of electoral politics.

The LDP has been the country's ruling party for 50 years almost without interruption -- an electoral run that may surprise Americans used to periodically deposing "the rascals" in power. At a time when U.S. political parties are often in disarray, Americans may also be surprised at the discipline of political parties in Japan. The LDP, for instance, chooses new candidates each election cycle, for the top political offices on down, and those chosen are both trained and tested by the party as a generational "class" as they move up the ranks. What these disciplined party operations reveal about Japanese democracy is a tantalizing and complex question -- and judgment is left entirely to the viewer. True to his choice of the observational form, filmmaker Soda follows Yamauchi's efforts -- on the stump, at party meetings and during the little time Yama-san manages to spend with his wife in their tiny, cluttered apartment -- without comment or analysis.

What is clear in Campaign from the start is that the qualities prized in LDP candidates, certainly first-year candidates, are a willingness to conform to party norms, including strict adherence to party hierarchy, and the ability to project an appealing humility to voters -- a far cry from the rough-and-tumble independence and boldness usually expected of American candidates.

Kazuhiko Yamauchi with his posters.

Thus, Yama-san may be the LDP's ideal candidate. He is thoroughly, even painfully, obsequious to party elders, who are ever on hand to instruct, admonish and take measure of the new politician. While they parse the way he stands, bows, dresses, talks, even the particular word he employs for "wife" -- Kanai ("housewife"), not to be confused with Okkanai ("scary wife") -- Yamauchi is unfailingly repentant and enthusiastic about improving his performance. His wife, Sayuri, a professional who works for an American corporation, is moved to question and complain about party dictates. ("Why do we have to wear white gloves and then take them off when we shake hands?") Yet she, too, dutifully fulfills the role expected of a candidate's wife, joining Yama-san and his entourage on the campaign trail. Sayuri is also the one who wonders how the couple will manage if Yama-san loses, since a novice candidate is expected to pay for his own campaign, without seeking donations.

So why does Yama-san run? What has made him so willing to turn his life on its head at the behest of an unknown party leadership? What makes him pursue a goal for which he previously revealed no ambition or talent? And can Yama-san win? The answers to the first three questions are never entirely explained by Yamauchi. He admits to the element of opportunism and personal ambition ("My plan was to become famous first, then run for office"), but also evinces a peculiarly Japanese sense of duty, simply to do what is asked by one's elders. To answer the final question, the LDP goes all out, surrounding Yamauchi with a heavyweight campaign team. As the campaign nears its climax, the party's biggest names, including Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi himself, turn up for rallies -- something almost unheard of for a suburban council seat.

But that's not really the story Campaign tells. Rather, it follows Yamauchi as he pursues the time-honored Japanese campaign practice of "bowing to everybody" ("even to telephone poles!" an advisor demands). This takes him on a dizzying round of local schools, sporting events, social gatherings, senior centers, and train and bus stations. At each location he first profusely apologizes for being a nuisance, then tries to shake every hand in sight and, per his instructions, repeat his name and party affiliation as often as possible. Few in the passing crowds appear to give Yama-san much heed, though occasionally he is told, "You sound sincere." This, in Japanese politics, is electoral gold.

What seems to be oddly missing from the campaigning are any discussions of issues. Other than parroting slogans of the national party -- in this case, Koizumi's call for "reform," though what this means, Yamauchi never even attempts to explain -- the candidate's job is to stick close to the script of name and party affiliation. Yamauchi is a pawn in a game where the power issues that make a suburban city council seat politically critical are being thrashed out at a level above his understanding. Yamauchi realizes this,: notwithstanding he goes at his assigned task with a sincerity and an infectious enthusiasm that seem at once naïve, idealistic and just a little loony.

"Campaign asks viewers to observe and think about what they see on screen," says director Soda. "In this sense, reality is not painted in black and white. Instead it is gray and complicated, the way we experience it every day. I hope that viewers will be left with unanswered questions, ones they will continue to think about for days, weeks, even years to come."

Campaign is a production of Laboratory X, Inc.