“I was born in 1945, when democracy was introduced in postwar Japan, so my life has been kind of synchronized with its development in the country. Unfortunately, democracy is still not rooted in the minds of the majority of the people there, and until this changes, I’ll continue to make films.” That was how maverick documentarian Kazuo Hara summarized his career when presenting his newest film Reiwa Uprising at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The film is now playing as part of MoMA’s Doc Fortnight program. From his debut feature Goodbye CP (1972), which showed how Japanese society stigmatized people with cerebral palsy, to Sennan Asbestos Disaster (2017), a record of an exhausting eight-year lawsuit over asbestos-related harm in the Osaka area, he has stood with the outcasts.
Hara often finds extreme characters who eschew mainstream society. Goodbye CP featured dedicated disability activist Hiroshi Yokota. Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (1974) profiled his ex-wife, the radical feminist Miyuki Takeda. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987) followed obsessive former soldier Kenzo Okuzaki, who was seeking to expose the truth about Japanese cannibalism in the Pacific during World War II. In Reiwa Uprising, we meet transgender university professor and politician Ayumi Yasutomi. Although the film documents the upstart Reiwa Shinsengumi party, an intersectional and progressive collective fighting the stagnation within Japanese politics, Yasutomi is the indisputable star.
Hara frequently employs intertitles for exposition, helping audiences understand the often-complex subject matter. They first appeared in Extreme Private Eros and are quite prominent in Emperor’s Naked Army, in which nearly as many important events happen off the screen as on. In Reiwa Uprising, they’re often employed for humor. Early on, after interviewing Yasutomi, Hara tells her, “If you run for election again, I’ll record the whole process.” The next title informs us: “It was a joke … that became reality!” He expands his tools here, also using tweets and clips from YouTube to draw a fuller picture of Yasutomi’s campaign for the Japanese Diet’s House of Councillors. The result is an exceptionally dynamic look at a political movement that was snubbed by the traditional media but made quite some noise on the internet. It’s appropriate, then, that Hara adopts social media modes and language into his aesthetic.
Yasutomi is not new to the Japanese political arena. In 2018, she ran for mayor of Higashimatsuyama, campaigning while riding her horse. She started to wear women’s clothes at 50, and defines herself as “woman-dressing,” a term that she coined, rather than “cross-dressing.” In the numerous street speeches documented in Reiwa Uprising, she uses captivating rhetoric to argue for structural change for “our children’s sake.” Like Okuzaki in Emperor’s Naked Army, she is unapologetic in her pursuit of her agenda, though she’s tempered by emotional intelligence similar to Takeda’s in Extreme Private Eros. She sees Japanese people as cogs in an asphyxiating machine, urging them to embrace a more sustainable pace of life. The horses that accompany her are not just distinctive props, but meant to illustrate this philosophy.
Also among Reiwa Shinsengumi’s candidates for the Diet are Yasuhiko Funago, who has ALS, and Eiko Kimura, who has cerebral palsy. Hara often films them in extreme close-up, highlighting the fighting spirit burning in their eyes. His gaze invites neither pity nor titillation over their conditions. This is a shooting he refined on Goodbye CP, similarly about people with cerebral palsy, in which he challenged the capitalist ideology which cast them as “unproductive” members of society, showing them performing everyday actions in environments not designed for their bodies. Similarly, after Funago and Kimura win historic elections to the Diet, the government building has to be adapted to allow their mobility devices to enter.
Although contemporary Japan is intrinsically different from the Shōwa Era (1926-1989), in which his early work came out, Hara continues to follow the same threads. Reiwa Uprising is over four hours long. Though it occasionally feels repetitive, that length also makes it a thorough record for posterity as well as a compass for radical political change. The road to democracy is paved with uncertainty, and Hara tries to record every shock to the system.