Reiwa Uprising れいわ一揆 (2019) Dir: Kazuo Hara

Reiwa Uprising   Reiwa Uprising Film Poster

れいわ一揆  Reiwa Ikki

Release Date: September 11th, 2020

Duration: 248 mins.

Director: Kazuo Hara

Writer: N/A

Starring: Ayumi Yasutomi

Website IMDB

Popular discontent and disillusionment with governments and traditional media are increasingly a feature of societies worldwide as economic conditions and alienation deepens for many. People are now seeking alternative voices that promise some semblance of change, even in Japan where the conservative Liberal Democratic Party has maintained a near unbroken grip on the steering wheel of the country since World War II. While this continuance of command has conferred the veneer of stability to the nation, beneath the surface is a history of corruption, incompetence, and persistent social problems which many people have linked to regressive official attitudes and an uncaring ruling party. What one finds is that these factors have led to a general sense of malaise amongst the populace. So, what hope is there for change?

Enter documentarian Kazuo Hara who, in his first film made without his wife and producer, Sachiko Kobayashi, spent three months in 2019 tracking a set of outsiders who tried to break into the conservative world of Japanese politics. He turns in a fun film that presents an optimistic picture of citizen engagement and collective action that upturns any cynical assumptions of what a politician should be and just how normal people can challenge the status quo.

Reiwa Uprising starts with Hara receiving an invitation to join a political campaign run by Ayumi Yasutomi, a transgender Tokyo University professor who specialises in economics and whose hobby is horse riding. She is one of ten candidates handpicked at short notice by actor-turned-politician Taro Yamamoto (Kawada in Battle Royale) to represent his then newly established Reiwa Shinsengumi party in their first national election. Up for grabs are seats in Japan’s House of Councillors. There is an understanding that the politically and financially dominant LDP are sure to retain power, but the hope is that some sort of breakthrough can be made and the party established. After briefings lay out a general strategy, each of the candidates sets off to campaign however they want.

And so Hara and his team follow Yasutomi with handheld cameras and smartphones. They record her as she goes on a whistle-stop tour of Japan, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, selling her message and listening to local issues like the Henoko base move. Her PR methods are lo-fi, especially when compared to the moneyed LDP figures: armed with a banner, sash, and microphone, Yasutomi travels alongside a horse and a small orchestra whose instruments include kazoos, melodicas, and an iPad and, as a group, they rock up in front of train stations, on street corners, and in community centres where Yasutomi gives speeches while her eccentric orchestra plays and spectators are invited to contribute, by dancing, drawing, and commenting.

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It is easy to dismiss these rallies as cute, especially when the film shows the quality gap between the focus-group-tested precision-engineered messaging of the LDP candidates who ride along on vans with a huge entourage of handlers – we see them in action when the LDP candidates send heavies and spies in to shut Yasutomi down – but she remains a calm and intelligent figure even if her presentation leaves a lot to be desired. Initially, her wandering speeches espouse two vague messages – “save the children” and “bring horses into cities” – and she is light on policy but as election day approaches, a clearer political rhetoric emerges as she takes inspiration from what she has seen and she rails against the strictures of society and unites it with the humanism and environmentalism she believes in. This stands in contrast to the LDP candidates who are like automatons who parrot insincere lines with inauthentic smiles that seem to wash off the crowds who breeze by with nary a glance. And this is where the film begins to show how the LDP can be overturned.

What we notice is that the novelty Yasutomi’s outreach catches attention and her sincerity and progressive and inclusive messaging inspires people to join in until her audiences grow larger, more diverse, and more dedicated. Even kids joyfully contribute drawings and comments praising her. While Yasutomi is never perfect on messaging, as evidenced by a talk about LGBTQ rights which feels too blasé, the public are genuinely swayed by her. Hara shows this through vox pops and in the many rally scenes caught in cinéma vérité style where we see people are drawn in to participate and are moved to tears by the increasingly impassioned Yasutomi who, herself, frequently bursts into tears, especially as she returns to her home prefecture of Osaka near. Sometimes, Yasutomi’s methods are magic, especially a Michael Jackson-inspired street concert that is definitely toe-tapping and grin-inducing, but what we see is her steadily building coalitions and active engagement with all sectors of society, especially those who are marginalised, and this provides the impetus for change. It is something that leftist parties tend to forget as they retreat away from working with unions and charities and communities and become professional politicians divorced from reality. The fact is status quo parties, especially conservative ones, tend to have the money, the way to beat them is to bring the people.

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While the film follows Yasutomi, we are introduced to the other candidates including Teruko Watanabe, a single mother, Eiko Kimura and Yasuhiko Funago, who are both disabled, and Taro Yamamoto himself who is using his star power to boost the prospects of his fellow party members. There are others, some slightly more polished, others more rough around the edges, but what is felt is that they are real people and of the people and committed to bringing difficult issues that the LDP ducks to the docket.

One of the other compelling strands in the film comes near the end where normal people begin to berate of the fourth estate. One woman, inspired by Reiwa Shinsengumi to travel from the distant Awaji islands to the election night gathering in Tokyo – watch the audience for raised eyebrows when she announces where she is from – chastises big news outlets for offering little coverage and this is followed up by many other stern comments. The lack of  media interest is an idea that is seeded throughout the film by Hara who uses YouTube and social media visuals to convey how Reiwa Shinsengumi use the internet to disrupt the normal political narratives and this allows them to secure recognition for their party. This really gets across just how grassroots and genuine the party are. Whatever the election results, it does seem like change is possible.

If Hara’s early works focussed on individuals and gave a glimpse of the collectives that formed around them, his late work, starting with Sennan Asbestos Disaster, is all about collectives and the individuals within them, each of whom pulls together to make a change. Through following Reiwa Shinsengumi, the film shows picture of people championing the rights of the disabled and the marginalised and offering an alternative vision for the way society is run. It’s a refreshingly unvarnished and cheerful experience that offers real slices of Japan, from Henoko base protests to stump speeches in Nishinari where the local crowd have little time for airs and graces. As the film played out, I felt myself swept along by the messaging and even getting emotional alongside Yasutomi whose genuineness definitely won my vote. Alright, I was really impressed by Taro Yamamoto, too!

Uplifting, fun, and hip to contemporary issues, Reiwa Uprising breezes through its near 5-hour duration quite easily and offers plenty to think about and relate to.

Reiwa Uprising was part of a season of films made by Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi run by Japan Society.