Kazuhiro Soda's excellent Campaign (Senkyo) is an "observational documentary," quiet and acute.
Standing in a train station, watching men and women in suits as they make their ways home from work, candidate Yamauchi Kazuhiko speaks into his portable PA system. "My name is Yamauchi Kazuhiko, from the Liberal Democratic Party of Prime Minister Koizumi," he says. "I plan to carry out Koizumi's reforms." Though a few people pass him, none stops to listen. As the camera pans the station, the fluorescent lighting seems extra-bright, the white walls sterile and forbidding. "We can change politics through elections," asserts Yamauchi. As the camera pulls back and out, across the street, the candidate looks very, very small.
This first scene in Kazuhiro Soda's excellent Campaign (Senkyo) illustrates its self-designation as an "observational documentary." Quietly and so very acutely (and airing in abbreviated form in PBS' POV series), it shows the progress of Yamauchi's campaign for City Council in Kawasaki, as it changes him and directs his future. "I'm what you call a 'parachute candidate,'" he tells a shopkeeper. "I had to move quickly from Tokyo to Kawasaki to establish residency." She doesn't have time for his explanation. "If you win," she gestures across the street, "Please fix the ditch outside." He smiles and agrees that yes, "The city tends to neglect these kinds of things."
As focused as Yamauchi's constituents may be on their day-to-day needs, he and his fellow politicians keep watch on the overarching themes of the campaign. They support "reforms," they say again and again, though it's never clear precisely what these are or how they might be specific to this city. He spends his time putting up posters proclaiming his name and showing how much his narrow visage resembles that of Junichiro Koizumi, then prime minister. During a climactic speech late in the film, Yamauchi stands on a balcony, dressed in the dark suit and candidate's sash that are his uniform throughout the film, and reinforces his connection to Koizumi. "My face is not the only thing I share with him," he says, arms wide, embracing air. "I share the same passion toward reform."
A 40-year-old entrepreneur without any political experience ("I've never even owned a suit before," he jokes), Yamauchi listens carefully to his headquarters workers, all borrowed from other precincts, once the party machine decides he's a best chance to win a seat it has not held before. Industrious and disciplined, they are also visibly uninspired (telling one another when he's not around how they're looking for to the end of this campaign, so they can return to their previous jobs, with other politicians). They've done this before, and they advise the newcomer on how to behave before elders and voters ("It's important to look at people's eyes," says one sensei," "If you catch their eyes, they're more responsive"). Yamauchi poses for photos, shakes hands, stands on sidewalks making announcements. "The most important thing is to repeat my name," he repeats, "People don't listen to details." Details like, you know, policy statements or ideas about local governance.
Making cold calls, Yamauchi thanks those on the other end for joining his Supporters' Association, while the sensei nods approvingly. "You're doing great," he says, "You sound sincere." The team also instructs Yamauchi's wife Sayuri in self-presentation. While she thinks she should call herself the "wife," a more up-to-date term, they repeatedly introduce her as "Yamauchi's housewife," a phrasing she first deems "not so politically correct," but soon adopts without protest. As he waves from the van covered in posters, she rides along, declaring his merits over a rudimentary PA system: "We will work hard," she says brightly, "to push through reforms!"
When they're not on the street, literally, the Yamauchis take brief moments to slurp down noodles for lunch. One evening, they head home late at night, the camera watching from the backseat as they argue over looming money woes. If he loses, the campaign debts will be theirs to pay; if he wins, the LDP pays. Sayuri is frustrated that the handlers have told her to quit her job: "We're trying to represent the interests of the younger generation," she notes. Quitting her job is "backwards." Once they arrive at their one-room apartment, the pressing need for her salary becomes extra-clear: they go to sleep on the floor, in their clothes, too exhausted to continue the discussion.
Election day is rife with still more tensions, though the candidate and his wife spend most of it off-screen, politely out of sight. As the poll numbers are, for most of the afternoon and evening, too close to call, the workers worry and smile, stunned that the party machine hasn't pulled out a sensational and definitive victory. When at last Yamauchi and Sayuri are called out to go through the rituals of thanking their staff and pledging allegiance to the party -- again -- the process is looking awfully draining, with an unclear pay-off. In part, the campaign and its anti-climax reveal the costs of dedication to larger powers. But they also show the ways that expectations can shape results, that the candidate can become exactly who he's supposed to be.