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

Filmmaker Interview

POV: What is Campaign about?

Kazuhiro Soda: Campaign is a film about a guy — a friend of mine, actually — named Yama-san who ran for office in Japan even though he had no experience in politics, no charisma, and no time or money. But Yama-san was backed by the most powerful party in Japanese politics, and the film is about his struggles and also about the Japanese election system and culture.

POV: Yama-san is from originally from Tokyo. How did he end up running for a position in the city of Kawasaki, and how did he introduce himself to the citizens of Kawasaki?

Soda: Yama-san had a small business selling stamps and coins, but one day he was called by a national politician who asked if he wanted to run for the office. Yama-san had 30 seconds to think it over because he had to answer before he hung up the phone. And he's the kind of guy who jumps into things, so he said "yes" to running for office in a city with which he has no relationship whatsoever. He didn't know anyone in Kawasaki, he didn't really live there, but he was appointed to be a candidate to run for office there.

So when he started running, Yama-san didn't really talk about where he lived.

But there was a reason why the party picked Yama-san, who is a political novice. usually the older Liberal Democratic Party's politicians are homegrown — meaning they are trained in the party for many years. But they were often criticized as being closed and out of touch with people's needs. So their strategy was to pick a candidate from the general public who has no ties to anybody in politics because that way they could claim that they have no special interests. Yama-san emphasized the fact that he has no ties to politics, no ties to bureaucrats or special interests — he is fresh and he could change things. And that was the message he was trying to convey. And most important, he stressed the fact that he supports the popular prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi.

POV: Is the political system in Japan similar to the United States? Is it a two-party system?

Soda: In recent years, it is basically a two-party system, although there are a bunch of other parties like the Communist Party, that are pretty strong. The Social Democratic Party is also strong. But we have two big parties — one of them is the Liberal Democratic Party, which has dominated Japan for the past 50 years, almost without any interruptions. And the second party is the Democrats. And so it's kind of similar to the us system, but the difference is, in America there are changes of government — sometimes the Republicans are in control, sometimes the Democrats are in control. But in the post-war era of Japan for the past 50 years, [the government] has been almost dominated by the same party the whole time. And that party is the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Kazuhiko Yamauchi waves from his campaign car.

Kazuhiko Yamauchi waves from his campaign car.

POV: Wow, that's a long time for them to be in office.

Soda: It is a long, long time to be dominated by the same party. But it's kind of changing actually. Because of the crisis of the Social Security system and other corruptions and scandals, last year the LDP lost control of the upper house of the Parliament in the election. And now Democrats are in control of the upper house, which is very unusual in the Japanese political history. So right now, the two parties are doing a tug of war. And some people are actually saying it's too unstable, they should merge and become a huge party. And some people say, no, you shouldn't do that, it is too dangerous for democracy. So it's really in a transitional period now.

POV: Tell us more about your protagonist and friend, Yama-san. How did you meet him?

Soda: I met Yama-san at the University of Tokyo in 1989. We were classmates, although I never saw him in class because he never showed up. But every time there was a party, he came. He never missed a party! That's how we became friends. At the time, Yama-san was living in a badly-maintained dorm right in the middle of campus. We all hung out there between classes and after classes, drinking beer, playing mah-jongg, talking about girls and taking naps. It was then that he and I became close.

But after that we didn't see each other for almost 20 years. And then one day I learned that he was running for office. I was shocked. For one thing, as far as I knew, Yama-san was not very political. Also, he was running as part of the LDP, which is the most conservative party in Japan, and in my opinion, he's very liberal, a very Bohemian type of guy who's very free-spirited. So I sensed that it would be very interesting if I could shoot his campaign. I asked him if I could film, he agreed, as did the Liberal Democratic Party, and five days later I was rolling.

POV: The process of running for office in Japan seems very different to us, at least watching from an American perspective. Can you tell us more about these cultural differences?

Soda: The democratic election system is a universal concept, but when different cultures and countries adopt the system, it usually gets localized, and different cultural aspects come into play. Obviously, Japanese elections are conducted in a very Japanese way. They are designed to appeal to Japanese voters, and campaigns are designed to get votes from the Japanese people, not from Americans or French. So that's how I think the LDP developed their way of campaigning, which has obviously been very successful, since the LDP has been in power for such a long time. So what you see in the film, the way that Yama-san campaigns, is part of a system that has worked for decades.

Typically, in Japanese elections a candidate wears a sash that says his or her name. He or she stands in front of the subway stations and talks about the issues, but most important, they repeat their names. They also drive around the city in a campaign car repeating their names every three seconds, because, supposedly, the attention span of voters is only three seconds. It's also important for candidates to get the support of local community leaders, because that way, they can possibly get the support of the entire community. That's actually very typical of Japanese campaigning. It's like, "I have a friend who knows this guy, so why don't you vote for him?" It's an extension of neighborhood politics.

POV: It seems like there are a lot of cultural traditions that are tied into the election process, and candidates need to follow certain protocols in terms of how they present themselves. Can you tell us more about that?

Soda: In the film, Yama-san gets scolded by many party members about the way he bows or the way he shake hands with people. He's instructed to look into the eyes of the people he's shaking hands with; he's instructed to face a certain way when there is an event. There are many trivial details he has to abide by.

I feel like all those details are part of a ritual. I don't know if the way he shakes hands or bows really affects the result of the election, but they are symbolic, and it's as if the details are part of a religious ceremony or festival. I've been living in the United States for the past 15 years, so to me, everything in Japan is kind of exotic now. I almost felt like I was doing an anthropological study, and campaigning felt like a ritual — almost like Japanese Noh or Kabuki theater — to assure ourselves that we have democracy and that we're choosing representatives. That was the way I thought about it when I was shooting and editing.

Other cultural differences are apparent during the campaigning. For an example, an American audience might find it kind of strange to hear Yama-san saying, "I'm a novice — I don't have any experiences in politics and I don't know what to do." But that's acceptable in Japanese culture. In Japanese culture people should not look too proud or confident; if you look too confident people may think that you are arrogant and cannot be trusted. In American culture, on the other hand, political candidates have to look like they know what they're doing, and they have to act like they are the best. So those differences go a long way to explain why the Japanese election looks so different from an American campaign.

POV: Looking at the American political process from your Japanese perspective, are there things that strike you as strange or exotic?

Soda: Yes, there are definitely things in the American political process that I find strange. For example, American candidates can spend any amount of money on their campaigns! So how much money you have really affects the result of the election. In New York we have a billionaire mayor, and it is obvious that if he hadn't had the money, he wouldn't have been elected — it's kind of determined by how much money you have. In Japan, election law prohibits candidates from spending too much money. There are limits to the amount of money candidates can spend and there are also limits to the length of time candidates can campaign, so people who have no means can have a chance. There are also limits on how many brochures candidates can distribute. Candidates can't air television commercials because only wealthy people can do that. There are downsides to the many rules and laws for Japanese elections, but at the same time, it is more fair and equal in terms of who can run for office or who can be elected. So when I look at the American political process, I feel a little bit uneasy because under the American system, only people who are rich can be elected. I think it's a very capitalistic way of doing things.

POV: In the film there are interesting issues that come up with Yama-san's wife in terms of the cultural expectations of how she's supposed to be presented. Tell us more about that.

Soda: First of all, Yama-san was running as part of the LDP party, which is a very conservative party that represents Japanese traditional values. So the way that the party perceives the role of women is very conservative (and sexist, in my opinion): It's an idea of women who should stay at home, not work and keep quiet.

Yama-san's wife is a career woman. She is very independent, and she's the main breadwinner for the family. But during the campaign, she had to call herself "housewife," and everyone else had to refer to her as a housewife as well. It was also suggested that she should quit her job to present the image that she's supporting her husband. That became a source of conflict between her and Yama-san.

It was interesting to me because Yama-san himself is not sexist. He's liberal in that sense, and he does believe in equality between men and women. But he was forced to pretend he has more conservative feeling, to go along with the values that the party and their constituency have. In the film, his wife, Sayuri-san, gets angry and complains to him. She says, "I won't quit my job until you become prime minister." That was one of the highlights of the movie!

POV: You graduated from the prestigious Tokyo University. How did you end up as an independent filmmaker?

Soda: My major at Tokyo University was religious studies, and I thought I was going to be a scholar. But when I was about to graduate, I realized that I don't like reading books! I like going out to different places and talking to people. I'm pretty outgoing, and I realized that maybe I shouldn't pursue a career as a scholar. So I thought maybe I should join a big company. I went to an interview session, where there were 2,000 or 3,000 applicants. In the large Japanese companies, they hire thousands of new graduates at the same time. Everyone is wearing the same dark blue suit, which is called the recruit suit. I was wearing one too. Nobody actually instructed us to wear it, but we all knew we were expected to wear the suit, and that's what I wore. But when I found myself wearing the same thing as thousands of other people, I said, "I can't do this." [Laughs] I had to walk out of the room and quit the interviewing process.

So I wasn't going to become a scholar, and I wasn't joining a big company. So I said to myself, "What should I do?" The idea of filmmaking popped into my head, probably by accident, and I thought, "Why don't I do that?" Also, I wanted to get out of the country and go somewhere else — so why not study film in New York? [Laughs] I packed my suitcase. I didn't know anyone in New York, but I just flew there with a suitcase. When I started to make films, I felt that this is exactly what I should be doing.

POV: What was your process during the shooting of Campaign?

Soda: When I was shooting Campaign I wanted to be as invisible as possible. I wanted to be a fly on the wall. So my obvious choice was to shoot alone. I didn't have any assistants, I didn't have a sound person, a cameraman or a driver. I worked alone, and I rolled the camera all the time. I was with the campaign for the entire duration of it and gradually people forgot about the fact that I was there and that I was filming. I blended in with them, and I could get their natural behavior on camera. I also chose not to ask questions because if I had started asking questions, then people would have been more conscious about being filmed. Gradually, I was seen as part of the campaign. That's how I got all those candid scenes with Yama-san and his wife and with other people in the campaign.