In his latest documentary film, Kazuo Hara shares that he wants to make an entertaining movie. Consequently, early in the film, he asks Reiwa Shinsengumi founder, Taro Yamamoto, to not hold back anything and thus really show the behind the scenes of things in his inimitable way. “Things,” in this case, refers to the seventeen-day election campaign waged by the ten candidates (including Yamamoto himself) of the newly formed and emerging force of a political party that is Reiwa Shinsengumi founded in spring 2019 for the House of Councillors election to be held later that summer. The party’s name strategically brings together present (“reiwa,” 令和, the name of Japan’s new calendar era that began in May 2019) and past (“shinsengumi,” 新選組, which famously refers to a ronin-composed police squad during the waning years of the Tokugawa era). Or old and new, following one of the candidates’ speech that the battle is about old power and new power, into which Reiwa Shinsengumi strives to be the critical wedge to bring about much-needed reforms in terms of not only policies but also attitudes and priorities. The mode of campaigns waged by the candidates and their critiques of Japanese politics and society, particularly those of Ayumi Yasutomi, have a marked affinity with Hara’s own brand of confrontational, taboo-breaking, and energetic filmmaking. As such, Reiwa Uprising not only fulfills Hara’s entertainment quotient but is a veritable shot in the arm look at Japanese politicking from the position of the underdog, given that Reiwa Shinsengumi was all but ignored by mainstream media during the campaign season.
Hara’s impetus, entertainment and all? As Hara details in the film’s prologue, he received an email from University of Tokyo professor Yasutomi about her decision to run for election as part of Reiwa Shinsengumi. The two had met in 2018 on Hara’s “Net de CINESIA Juku” wherein he interviewed her and communicated how her approach to campaigning had struck him. Then, he throws out the idea, or half-jokes, that he would like to make a film if she ever decides to run for election again. Fast forward a year later and the film proper begins.
The film can be divided into two broad sections and culminates with the results of the election for Reiwa Shinsengumi’s candidates. The first section presents the buildup towards the beginning of its collective campaign and their diverse platforms, though united by the fervent desire for changes in social and economic policies on a tectonic level. But this first section follows a clever reverse chronology that concludes with the large gathering staged for the presentation of the ten candidates. The sequence is awe-inspiring and moving because the candidates hand-picked by Yamamoto demonstrate a deeply inclusive community, beginning with Yasutomi, who identifies herself as josei-so, a term that she herself coined when she came out as a transgendered woman several years before. Her peers include Teruko Watanabe, a single mother and part-time worker; Eiko Kimura, who is a long-time activist and has cerebral palsy; Yasuhiko Funago, who has ALS and is also a musician; and Toru Hasuike, who shares with Yamamato a defiant anti-nuclear stance and whose brother was abducted by North Korean spies in the late 1970s. That this section concludes with the official introduction of each of the candidates is both rousing and practical. Rousing for the passion that each candidate expresses, which is equally met by the audience, and a stimulus for what is still to come in this mammoth four-hour-plus film. And practical since it allows the viewer a glimpse of each candidate’s personality and individuality, about which Yamamoto is rather adamant about maintaining instead of getting lost in the group, as important as it may be to make “Reiwa Shinsengumi” a household name.
Hara also follows this principle throughout the film by intercutting between observational footage and sit-down interviews with the candidates. These individual interviews provide more details about the candidates, their past and present experiences and points of view. Just as importantly, the interviews also invite the viewer to compare these “private,” downtime moments with the more public ones. Doing so, the viewer does not find much difference, which further solidifies the candidates’ collective and individual sincerity, energetic charm, and drive. More explicitly, however, are the inevitable comparisons that Hara stages between Reiwa Shinsengumi speeches and public events and those by candidates of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Though Hara is by no means making an endorsement of the former, the “old power” LDP is not left unscathed in the film as a result of such juxtapositions, not to mention sudden (even to the point of subliminal) intercutting of shots. A stiff, much-too-choreographed formality permeates LDP candidates, speeches, and events. In contrast, an almost casual, around-the-campfire openness characterises Reiwa Shinsengumi, particularly during its two-day festival of speeches, musical performances, and guest speakers for its ever-expanding number of supporters.
All the same, as the prologue indicates, Hara accompanies Yasutomi most of all since he is particularly taken with her unconventional, musical, and enlivening approach to campaigning. The film’s second section thus consists of following Yasutomi for just over a fortnight before election day, but without ever losing sight (literally and figuratively) of the other candidates and their own individual campaigning after Yamamoto makes the announcement that they will be on their own until election day, which marks the start of the second section. For Yasutomi, political campaigning is but another mode of creative and cultural expression; hence her entourage of several live musicians and a horse for her on-the-street speeches, from Hokkaido to Okinawa. At first glance, Yasutomi and her crew cut such an eccentric figure that the passersby and viewer hesitate to take them seriously. Yet key to what she calls her “non-violent” approach is precisely to unsettle people’s ideas about and attitudes towards politics (apathy, disconnect, disappointment), that it can be joyful and cathartic, and to lay bare what is simply not working in the government for the population.
Beat for beat, Hara matches and reflects the casual, cathartic, and, yes, joyful that Reiwa Shinsengumi generates towards changes, all of which paradoxically springs from intense anger, frustration, and even downright disgust with the state of the nation.
Rowena Santos Aquino is a Los Angeles-based film lecturer who teaches courses on Asian cinemas, Film History, and Documentary Film. Her scholarship focuses on documentary film histories, productions, and cultures. She has been published in journals such as Transnational Cinemas, Asian Cinema, and LOLA, and in the 2016 anthology Film Music in ‘Minor’ National Cinemas. As a film critic specifically covering Asian cinemas and film festivals. While a Cinema & Media Studies graduate student, she embarked on the path of film criticism by writing for the UCLA-/USC-based Asian/Asian-American popular culture magazine Asia Pacific Arts. After she received her doctorate degree, she began writing for the Toronto-based film website Next Projection and continues to focus on coverage of Asian cinemas and documentary films.