Friday, April 11, 2008

Yama-san’s Campaign

Coin and stamp dealers are not typically on the fast track for elected office. Truthfully, they could not do worse than the attorneys we have sent to Congress and City Hall. In 2005, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party did in fact pluck an unknown coin dealer from obscurity to run in a special election for the Kawasaki City Council. That campaign is the subject of Kazuhiro Soda’s logically titled documentary, Campaign (Senkyo), playing at MoMA through the weekend (trailer here).

Kazuhiko “Yama-san” Yamauchi has no prior political experience, name recognition, or policy expertise. Frankly, he does not inspire much confidence on the stump. However, for this important special election, the LDP recruited Yamauchi from outside the city in place of the local candidates who sought the party endorsement. After seeing Yamauchi on the campaign trail, we can only imagine what the passed over candidates were like.

The vacant seat was formerly held by the LDP. If they hold it, the city council will remain evenly divided. If they lose it, the balance of power tips away from them. As odd a choice as Yamauchi appears, the stakes are not inconsequential.

Having spent a lot of time on campaigns, some things appear fairly universal. There is plenty of phone calling and envelope stuffing going on at headquarters. However, evidently Japanese campaigns, at least in Kawasaki, greatly rely on cars with high-powered speakers blasting the candidate and his surrogates through the very walls of his potential constituents’ homes. It makes robo-calling look unobtrusive.

The organization of local parties also appears much different, with most volunteers loyal to a particular candidate’s booster club, rather than the local party per se. Given the nature of the special, Yamauchi’s prospective council colleagues have loaned him their boosters, but it is made clear this is a one-time only deal.

No political genius, Yamauchi, at least comes across as a likeable sad sack. However, it is not appropriate to make him out to be a political Rocky, because the local establishment backs him all the way. Watching him take both abuse from voters on the street and condescension from party “senseis” can be down right uncomfortable.

As likeable as he might be, his wife shows the patience of a saint. She does lose her sense of humor when the party asks her to quit her job, sensibly reminding Yamauchi that she is currently the only one with a steady paycheck. “What if he loses?” she asks. “Don’t even think about losing,” the party tells her.

With no voiceovers or soundtrack, Soda’s vérité style is very straight forward. He captured some very cinematic episodes on the campaign trail, which unfortunately often place Yamauchi on the receiving end of some humiliation. Yet after a while, the scenes tend to blur together, as we see Yamauchi doing calisthenics in suit and tie or carrying shrines as befits which ever group he is courting. The film does end with some real suspense, after the twelve long days of official campaigning.

There definitely seems to be more hazing in J-Democracy than in the American version. Perhaps the Japanese are onto something. Maybe we should make our candidates sweat more before tossing them the keys to the treasury. Campaign runs at MoMA through the weekend and an edited version will broadcast on PBS’ POV July 29th.

Note: Yama-san has been seen pressing the flesh in-person after past MoMA screenings and he has an undeniable charm in person.