Kazuhiro Soda

1 July 2007
picture: Kazuhiro Soda


After many years in New York as correspondent for Japan's national broadcaster NHK, documentary filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda returned to Japan to film his former classmate Kazuhiko Yamauchi as he ran for a seat on the Kawasaki city council. The resulting film, Campaign (Senkyo), paints a riotously funny, but also disturbing portrait of the mechanisms behind party politics in Japan, and particularly the workings of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which ruled Japan for decades almost without interruption.

You're currently on tour with Campaign, having shown it at festivals in Berlin, Hong Kong, Paris, Austin, and Buenos Aires.

And I'm going to Toronto this weekend for the Hot Docs festival, followed by Barcelona and Sydney.

Do you feel any similarities between being a filmmaker on the fest circuit and a politician on the campaign trail?

Totally. It is a campaign for Campaign. I feel like I'm Yama-san now.

You keep repeating the film's name over and over.

Exactly! That is exactly what I'm doing. Depending on how I do affects the fate of my movie, which is another similarity. It's up to me, nobody else.

Well it's a good film, but you're saying that because it's an independent film you're an important element, too?

Yeah, so unless I do a lot of hard work nobody will recognize it. Until a certain point I need to push hard, and then after a certain point maybe it'll take on its own life and Campaign will be Campaign. Until then I need to work hard.

So you feel like Yama-san?

I am him.

picture: scenes from 'Campaign'

And he's joined you on the road, right?

He came to Berlin, Paris, Switzerland, and Hong Kong. He really enjoys film festivals.

I heard he's wearing his sash and everything.

He campaigned for Campaign on the streets of Berlin, wearing the sash and headband and holding a megaphone with his poster up. He would say "I am Kazuhiko Yamauchi from the documentary film Campaign. Please support our movie. We will reform documentary films with this movie." Sort of a self-parody of his own campaign. He did it all in Japanese and people would stop and listen and take pictures, even AP and Reuters. He said "I wish the people in Miyamae would listen to me this carefully." [Miyamae is the ward of Kawasaki City where Yamauchi canvassed - JG].

I guess his confidence shot up?

I think so. I was a bit worried about the audience reaction toward him, because he's doesn't necessarily look heroic in the film. I included a lot of scenes where Yama-san makes mistakes and gets scolded and feels hopeless or helpless. But as soon as he showed up after the screening, people cheered and applauded him. The standing ovation lasted for a couple of minutes. He was like a hero, like a movie star. People lined up to get his autograph, shake hands and take pictures with him. It was touching for me. I was worried for nothing. He was happy he was so well accepted.

What is it people like about him?

In the film he's scolded all the time and people chew him out and he is generally humiliated, constantly, but he remains optimistic and he never speaks ill of other people. He's sincere, but maybe too honest. He didn't hide the fact that he was a political novice and a "parachute candidate". I think it's quite rare to see a person who wants to be a politician and who's that honest and sincere.

It's endearing when he's saying he doesn't know how to talk the talk.

There are scenes where he and his wife express their honest feelings about what's happening so I think people felt pretty close to Yama-san as a person and his wife. I wasn't sure if his kind of personality could be understood by other people - I love him, but I wasn't sure if people would get it.

Your relationship with him started back in university, didn't it?

When I entered Tokyo University I was a teen and he was already 24 because he had attended other schools. It took him about five years to get into Tokyo University. I was 18 so I noticed this one older guy in the class. That's not uncommon in other countries, but in Japan everybody's around the same age when you enter college or university. And usually, in Japanese society when you are older, you act older, but he didn't. He was one of us.

No sempai-kohai dynamics...

Not at all. He always connected with people on a horizontal basis, not vertical. He doesn't try to create pecking orders. He became friends with everybody. He lived in a dorm on the Komaba campus. There was this old building in ruins dominated by left-wing students. The windows were broken and there were no locks on the doors - horrible conditions, but the rent was something like 400 yen per month and that's where he lived. He rarely showed up to class but he always came to parties and was often in his room, where'd we'd frequently visit him to chat and that's how we became friends.

Jumping ahead to 2005 when you got the phone call.

One of the friends that hung out with us saw one of Yama-san's campaign posters on the streets of Kawasaki by chance. He took a picture and sent it to me in New York by email asking me what was going on. I said "how should I know?" It was so fascinating and funny.

This is the poster on which women said he looked scary?

That's the one. Right away, the thought of a movie about his campaign popped into my head. I asked him if I could do it and he said "Go for it!" But I was concerned whether I could get permission from the LDP. I asked them and they said yes. They didn't really interfere with me at all.

That's hard to believe.

It's supposed to be a closed and secretive organization, but they were pretty open. I was surprised. They didn't really hide anything. There were a few sensitive meetings they didn't want me to film, but other than that they gave me freedom. There were a couple of times when I was having lunch and missed some events they were doing and they asked why I wasn't there! "It was a great event, you should've shot it!" They also didn't ask me to show them any footage before the film premiered. They won't see it until it opens in Japan [it opened on June 9, 2007 - JG].

picture: scenes from 'Campaign'

Regarding the access you had, in the press notes you mentioned you had no car so you rode with Yama-san and the others. Whether it was intentional or not, I thought it gave the film an intimate feel. Do you think the film would've been very different if you had a larger crew as was the case with your work for NHK, for instance?

Totally. I wouldn't have done it that way. I've shot about 50 documentaries for NHK over the years and most of them were shot with a traditional crew - cameraman with a big camera, lighting guy, sound person, maybe an assistant. That's huge in a way and it's almost impossible for people to act naturally. I was always wishing I was alone, shooting by myself. If I wanted to make my own movies, I wanted to do it alone, not just for financial reasons but for aesthetic ones. With my type of documentary filmmaking, my ideal approach would to be invisible, like air, observing. That's possible now because of the revolution in video cameras. Small cameras can now capture fine images and good quality sound through mounted shotgun mics.

And of course there is the trust you had from Yama-san and his wife.

Right. What's funny about him is that he kept apologizing to me while shooting because he couldn't pay that much attention to me because he was so busy. He would try to offer help or ask if there were any specific scenes I wanted to capture, but I was like "No, you don't have to do anything for me!" He's such a nice person and he likes to entertain people.

You've said you didn't do any research about politics and wanted to capture raw footage without using a lot of devices like titles and so on, so that viewers would feel the same way you did as you filmed it. What were some of the surprising things you learned about the democratic process or otherwise while shooting?

Almost everything. I had the vague idea that the candidates themselves were in charge and that everyone around them was supporting them, but when I jumped in he was only a member of a team and at the lowest level of the pecking order. That was striking. At the same time, I thought it was very typical of a Japanese organization. Not only in election campaigns, but in corporate culture, schools, even baseball teams. It's not about individuals, but about groups. That was eye-opening to me and I felt right away it was about Japanese people, culture, and society. I wanted to capture the essence of society through the election process.

What were viewers who've never been to Japan most surprised by?

Well, I've lived in New York for the past 14 years, so I almost share the same point of view of people outside of Japan. When I come back to Japan I feel like a foreigner. Almost everything looks fascinating to me. Even the trains. If I lived in Japan, shots of the commuter trains wouldn't even have made the cut.

Your eyes have changed over the years.

Yes. Even the way people bow and walk is exotic to me. The movie is dictated by my POV, so I think it's pretty easy for foreign audiences to grasp what's strange or funny. I shot about 60 hours of footage and cut it down to 2, which means 58 hours were not used.

Documentaries have a much higher ratio.

I picked and chose what I wanted so it's already very subjective so I didn't want to add more through devices etc. or explain everything. It's up to the audience how to take it and it's open to different interpretations. Movies are by nature subjective. One image can be seen in different ways by different people. Maybe you look at the quality of light, maybe you look at the beautiful girl passing by, or a sign in the frame. If you put narrative over it or titles over it, you're dictating. It becomes narrow and flat. With my NHK work there was always narration, which I wanted to get rid of it. I always thought it limited the range of interpretation and made the images one-dimensional, so that's why I wanted to leave the footage in Campaign "untouched."

You've worked in both documentary and narrative filmmaking equally. Are you pulled toward either direction? Which is more satisfying for you?

Right now I'm very much into documentary filmmaking, so I'll probably continue with that. At the same time, there are probably certain themes that would fit narrative, so I'm open to different possibilities. But to me, documentaries are ultimately fiction. You're shooting from a certain angle, you're editing it, you're creating fiction. Also, fiction films are ultimately documentaries because you're recording the state of the actors, the way they talk. It's obvious when you look at old films, for example Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa's movies such as Seven Samurai, Mifune is so young and active. It's a document of him at that time. Fiction and documentary are a very similar thing divided by genre, but that's more for convenience. It's not fundamentally different.

But of course the method is different.

True, but their underlying nature is the same.

Who are some of your favourite documentarians and narrative filmmakers?

For documentaries, my favourite is Frederick Wiseman. He's my hero. He keeps making films in the same style and tone every year, at the age of 70-something. I'm amazed. I watch his films at the library, because that's where they're available. I've seen most of his films and they're never boring. In terms of the way I came up with my style of documentary filmmaking, he was the biggest influence. I was so honored when he brought his own movie State Legislature to Berlin in the same section as Campaign, the Forum section. Our films were compared because they had a similar style and dealt with democracy. I met him and took a picture and was really excited and fulfilled by the experience.

It must have been an honor for your film to be programmed alongside his work.

Exactly. He's a legend. I can't believe he's still living! (laughs)

picture: scenes from 'Campaign'

And narrative filmmakers?

Yasuzo Masumura is one of my favourites. He's so brilliant and under-recognized. He's of the caliber of Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Naruse but isn't as recognized, which is frustrating. I love The Blind Beast, A Wife Confesses, and Giants and Toys, which is a great movie that captures the essence of capitalism. I love his themes and his visuals, which are so refined and stylish. I also love Lars von Trier.

Were the New York filmmakers part of what drew you there?

Sure. I'm a big fan of Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese, and the Maysles brothers. I didn't want to go to L.A. at all, because I like independent films or artistic films. I love New York because you can walk, and I don't drive.

Do the Japanese media recognize you as a Japanese filmmaker based in New York and do you consider yourself a global filmmaker?

Yes, I am. I live in New York because I like New York and that's all. In this day and age it doesn't matter where you are. I like NYC because more than 50% of the population are foreigners from different cultures. There is no one standard social code or set of ethics. In Japan it's more monocultural and you're supposed to behave a certain way or you're socially punished. That's one thing I didn't enjoy while living in Japan, while I feel very liberated living in New York. I'm a selfish person - I don't want to follow other people's instructions.

What's next?

I've already started shooting a documentary on the daily lives of mentally ill patients, here in Japan.

Is that for NHK?

No, this is my own film, with the same type of observational style. There's a Wiseman influence, but I don't feel comfortable calling it "Direct Cinema," which is the name of a filmmaking movement in the 1960s so I call it "Observational Film". I mix in other things too, so I feel I have to give it a different name. I have many other ideas and themes I want to do. The question is who gives me permission to shoot and where and when.

Is it again a one-man operation?

Yes. I really enjoyed the way I shot Campaign. People said to me "Oh, maybe next time you can get more money from producers involved at the beginning," but I don't want that. I enjoyed so much freedom because nobody paid me or put up any money. I didn't have to pitch and get approval from a network or anything. It was so spontaneous. Anyone can do it with today's technology. You don't have to spend a whole lot of money to make a good movie.