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“Power and Organizational Pressure Win Over Logic”: Kazuo Hara on Reiwa Uprising at Rotterdam 2020

Reiwa Uprising

Kazuo Hara has always aligned himself with the political left, but it was nevertheless surprising to hear about his latest film, Reiwa Uprising, which depicts the ascent of Japan’s newest left-wing political party, Reiwa Shinsengumi, from grassroots agitators to seated parliamentarians during the 2019 election. It is not unusual for Hara, best known for Extreme Private Eros (1974) and The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987), to take almost a decade or even longer between films, yet Reiwa Uprising follows Sennan Asbestos Disaster by just two years.

That expedited time to completion was largely out of necessity: Reiwa Shinsengumi was founded in April 2019, and Japan’s general election campaign lasted only 17 days. As depicted in the beginning of the film, the clock was ticking from the moment Hara was contacted by Reiwa candidate Ayumi Yasutomi. Hara handles new territory like an old pro, however; Reiwa Uprising is as compelling in its examination of Yasutomi as his previous films are of their subjects.

Yasutomi, a transgender Tokyo University professor who briefly made headlines in Japan for her 2018 mayoral campaign, is an eccentric by almost any definition. Her campaign relied heavily on rhetorical appeals toward family and children, but also included a rented horse at every campaign stop, staging a flash mob performance of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (which she hails as a great philosophical work) and making promises of upending grade school education completely. Yet through Hara’s patience—he chronicles each day of the cycle, and much of the film’s 4.5-hour runtime is dedicated to street speeches—a genuine politic emerges alongside a portrait of a committed optimist.

That said, Hara does not ignore the party’s other candidates, including its charismatic leader Yamamoto Tarō and current National Diet Councillors Yasuhiko Funago and Eiko Kimura, who suffer from ALS and cerebral palsy, respectively. Reiwa Uprising is a compelling character study, but time may prove it to also be an invaluable document of the birth of booming anti-establishment, populist movement in a nation that has been governed almost exclusively by the same party since its 1955 foundation.

After Reiwa Uprising’s international premiere at the 49th International Film Festival Rotterdam, I had a chance to speak with Kazuo Hara through a translator about Japanese politics and how working on an accelerated timeline affected his filmmaking process. The film makes its US premiere as part of MoMA’s “Doc Fortnight” festival tonight.

Filmmaker: I know you were contacted by Mrs. Yasutomi first, but could you describe the political climate in Japan that pushed you to make this film? Abe has been Prime Minister for a very long time, but the film suggests a lot of Japanese people are dissatisfied with the direction of the country.

Hara: Do you know how incompetent and selfish Prime Minster Abe is?

Filmmaker: Not especially. When Americans and Europeans talk about the rise of the far-right, they usually do not talk about Japan.

Hara: I would describe the Japanese political climate as a very desperate situation, even a comedy for me. When we talk about the relationship between Japan and the United States, we need to talk about the U.S-Japanese safety treaty. In Okinawa, as you know, there is a base and soldiers, and there is a whole budget on the Japanese side as well, the “good will budget.” It is quite expensive for the Japanese government as well. Trump wants Japan to expand that budget and station other fighter jets there. That was a big issue in Japan. Trump wanted a certain price and Abe was willing to buy them for an even higher price, so a lot of people are dissatisfied with that. They’re calling Abe a dog of Trump, and he’s very desperate. He is chosen by the Japanese public, but we are very desperate.

Filmmaker: So what allows the Liberal Democratic Party to stay in power despite this desperation and Abe’s failings?

Hara: My own conclusion is that—yes, the LDP is very selfish, pursuing their own political agendas. So why are the Japanese so obedient toward such a leader? I think it is because Japan has not made their own post-war democracy, a new democracy. They are not able to speak up. That is what I’m so depressed about.

Filmmaker: Is that what makes Reiwa Shinsengumi different from the other left-wing parties? Are they tapping into an anti-establishment method in a way that the Communist Party or Social Democratic party are not?

Hara: Yes, exactly. Currently Japan’s politics is in the clutch of the big parties. I don’t think there is a climate of true democracy in Japan, and we need the climate to support the very genuine movement—the real democratic thoughts—of Reiwa Shinsengumi, and for that to take root in society. The party got enough votes to elect two candidates who are disabled. Those are people who are affected themselves. Up until now, people from high stature were representing them, and representing the people more generally, but [Reiwa Shinsengumi party leader] Yamamoto Tarō started this movement in which the people themselves get a voice within the National Diet. Yamamoto Tarō himself got over 900,000 votes, and all counted Reiwa Shinsengumi got around two million votes. Obviously, that is not nearly enough to change a whole country, but I see increasing support for the movement. I don’t know the extent of that increase; we’ll have to see during the next election. 

Filmmaker: Watching the movie yesterday, I was reminded of a lot of the excitement around new political movements in the US. When in the filmmaking process did you realize you might be capturing the beginning of something that might be really big?

Hara: Politics is all about power and organization. Power and organizational pressure win over logic, is how I see it. To achieve something in politics, you need organizational power, but that is not something I like. My life has been all about anarchy. It’s not to my liking. There is a contradiction in that there are organizations needed, but it’s not what I like or want to follow. What I like about Yamamoto Tarō is that he actually is not trying, as of yet, to make a real political organization. He has a political party, but it does not have a traditional structure. But in the future, if he wants to achieve something, he will at some point have to go in that direction. I’ve been following him and am a little concerned with how he will continue to fight the organizational power.

Ayumi Yasutomi has the political view that Japan is fundamentally wrong—that the whole system with the governing parties and oppositions and the standard values in society are wrong, the policies are wrong. That is what Mrs. Yasutomi is saying; she is a little different than Mr. Yamamoto. Yamamoto is trying to fight within the system, and they differ in opinions, and I can understand Mrs. Yasutomi and her views a little more.

Filmmaker: She was the one who invited you to make the film, but was the rest of the party initially receptive, or were they reluctant?

Hara: It first started off as a project between she and I only, but as shown in the movie, I make a call to Mr. Yamamoto to ask him about the project. It could be something very Japanese to still follow such rules, but in any case, Mr. Yamamoto approved. I also had to ask the other candidates, ten total, and basically what Mr. Yamamoto told them was that it was going to be a documentary with Mrs. Yasutomi as the main focus. That’s what he had told them, so during filming the staff was really supportive and it was received very well. 

As for the other candidates, I felt there was a little difference in warmth toward the film. The other candidates were only told there was going to be a movie about Mrs. Yasutomi, so after the movie was released, they thought, “oh, but that’s a film about Mrs. Yasutomi, right?” There was a discrepancy there that several candidates noticed. But in general, they were very supportive, and while there haven’t been a lot of screenings yet, whenever I invited them, they would come and they would see the film as a film about them and their movement and were very supportive.

Filmmaker: You had to produce this film very quickly, which is quite unusual for you. Many of your films take many years or decades to make. What changes did that necessitate in your process?

Hara: Yes, this was a very big problem. All of my documentaries until now, as you know already, took years—not even years, but longer. I think they succeeded to some extent—and this is what I love and I find so important—because I can capture during all those years the rawness of people. I want to capture their emotions. Emotions exist always, and they are always conflicting. Capturing that is my essence. 

From my experience, subjects that are being filmed tend to choose their words carefully. They tend to determine for themselves what kind of emotions they want to show, and they present it in an organized away. That is not what I’m looking for. In this case, the election period is obviously short, and I could only document words directed toward the public. While that is not ideal for me, in another way, I was able to capture what I wanted through those words. I knew I would only be able to capture words going into the project, I knew it would be very different than everything I’ve done until now and would have to work in a very short period and capture only words.

Furthermore, I do think that words have different dimensions. Words can be informative, but emotional as well. Words themselves, and especially the Japanese language, have different dimensions. For example, Mrs. Yasutomi is a very logical person. She teaches at Tokyo University and is able to think through economics and policy. That’s different from Mrs. Watanabe, the part-time worker and single mother, who is very emotional. People have different standards for themselves and they give different values to their own words and the words of others. I was determined and able to only capture words, so I told myself not to hide away or turn away. For me, this is a movie to show the different values, meanings, expressions, and possibilities of words. That is the essence of this movie.

Filmmaker: Were you working with a smaller crew than usual this time because of the shorter timeframe?

Hara: This was a very sudden project, and it started off with just the two of us [Hara and producer Chihiro Shimano, sitting alongside him]. She was carrying a camera as well. Because she is an amateur and not experienced at filming, there were a lot of unusable images, but she was also able to capture a lot of very raw, very good images. So, it started off with just two cameras, but we needed a lot more. Two were not enough, and we asked all kinds of people to help us out. We even had people with smartphones filming. It started with two because it was so sudden, and sometimes we had to be flexible and improvise, but eventually the size of the crew wasn’t so different than other films. The usual film crew we have, I couldn’t ask all of them, and we couldn’t film from the front and back, and I didn’t have my usual assistance. There was a lot more improvising, at least at first.

Filmmaker: One of the things that struck me is the balance between Mrs. Yasutomi’s more eccentric side and the times when she gets very emotional. She started to cry talking about junior high and high school, but on the other hand is walking around with a horse. How did you strike that balance in communicating both sides of her personality?

Hara: [Laughs] Yes, she’s very eccentric. I did not think at all about balance. Mrs. Yasutomi, when we talked in an earlier conversation, suggested making a film about her, and later it became a project. But she had never seen any movies that I made, so neither of us knew how we would interact with each other or how I would film. Basically, Mrs. Yasutomi did what she wanted and I let her. Only after this movie was completed did she watch The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, and only then did she understand what my process is. There was no conscious attempt by either of us to strike a balance in her depiction.

Filmmaker: Did you always know the film was going to be day-by-day? We end up with a sort of character study in seeing her street speeches each day. Was that always the plan?

Hara: Yes. Chronology and clear lapse of time in a documentary is very important. It’s the most natural for the viewer, so it’s fundamental to me. You also see Mrs. Yasutomi changing over time in her demeanor. In the beginning she said to me that she wouldn’t talk about her own private life or about her past, but during the course of the election period you start to see her change. First, she’s…not distant, but calm. But later you see she is talking passionately, and crying talking about her past. She talks about her roots. You can see the changes in her personhood. Because it was such a short period of time and we filmed day-by-day—and although that was different than other projects—it was the most natural way to edit it like this. It was an idea I had from the beginning, and it still felt natural during editing.

Filmmaker: I noticed that Mrs. Yasutomi says very little about the LGBT community, at least in the film. What is the political perception of that community and Mrs. Yasutomi’s place in it?

Hara: As you know, Japan is quite conservative and traditional. In a conservative environment such as Japan the LGBT community is still oppressed, but there is definitely a movement. Japan is not as big as the United States, but it is large enough that LGBT rights need to be through organization. Mrs. Yasutomi, as was my impression of her, is not really interested in the LGBT community itself because it is so organizational. She’s a freer, more anarchic person. 

She was criticized for this during the campaign. The LGBT community was definitely interested in her, but they felt a discrepancy between what they wanted and how she really hates categorizing, as displayed in the film. LGBT, obviously, there are numerous categories within, your Ls, your Gs, your Bs, your Ts. Mrs. Yasutomi thinks that we should free ourselves from those questions and categorizations and leave those things out. The LGBT community—not everyone, but a large part—felt that she wasn’t really standing up for them in the way that they wanted. She’s been criticized for that.

Filmmaker: How did that play to the broader public? Was it a big part of media coverage that she was a transgender candidate, or was that not mentioned very much?

Hara: My impression is that it had to do with how she’s an academic and comes from an academic background. The media and the broader public didn’t focus so much on the fact that she was transgender. It was more subtle. Japan, while being conservative—LGBT visibility is relatively new to Japan—has seen, in the last few years, a certain degree of acceptance. With that background, the public saw her as someone who was unusual because it’s so rare to see someone from academia, a bit wealthier, to be so open about sexuality. It was not black and white, “oh she’s transgender,” but a bit more of… it was of interest, but with a twist, related to her academic background.

Filmmaker: On the one hand is this very compelling character study about Mrs. Yasutomi, but there is also a level of political agitprop to the film. We see certain words filling up the screen in pink. Why did you choose to emphasize certain messages? 

Hara: This is to me a film all about words, and I wanted to let the audience meet those words and their different meanings. There are still certain nuances, and the emphasized words are exactly what is being spoken, that I think are important for the viewer to carry on while watching the film.

Filmmaker: You mentioned after the screening that you just finished another film. What is it like to work on different projects concurrently?

Hara: Yes, I’m working on another right now, and I finished a film a week ago that took 15 years, about the Minamata Disease. I do that a lot. I’m always working on multiple projects. It took me 15 years to make that, so obviously this one came along during that, and because it was such a fast project, I had to turn my focus toward it, but there was still a lot of working on them in parallel.

Filmmaker: You also said that the original cut was seven hours long. Could you talk about editing and structuring the film to get it to what it is now?

Hara: The total material was around 700 hours, and the film began with the idea of broadcasting it on streaming media. We had 12 hours reserved for that. We put something together, and that initial cut, if you would call that an initial cut, was seven hours. That was broadcast on voting day, because that’s what the internet media wanted. What was very difficult was that we were still filming, and we had to keep filming but also make a cut for this. The broadcast was received very well, and then sponsors came along and the rest of the filming and real editing started. We went to Tokyo International Film Festival, and that’s what got it rolling toward this version.

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