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Escape from Freedom: An Interview with Filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda

SNA (Tokyo) — New York City resident Kazuhiro Soda is a documentary filmmaker and author of numerous books and essays published in his homeland of Japan. He is known for the warmth of his camera’s gaze and the sharpness of his pen, both unflinching.

His films traverse a range of topics from theatre to disability, from cats to the nature of peace, but I was particularly interested in his documentation of Japanese elections in the works Campaign (2007) and Campaign 2 (2013). The first shows Soda’s university classmate Kazuhiko Yamauchi, a complete political novice, running for office in a key local district. He wins, simply by going through the motions of campaigning as directed by his handlers in the Liberal Democratic Party—Japan’s behemoth major political party.

Soda has described the work as a kind of comedy, which it is, but the climax of the film—Yamauchi’s victory—is hard not to read as tragedy as well. The film’s sequel, also a tragicomedy, shows the polar opposite kind of campaign: Yamauchi, back in civilian life a few years later, returns to run on an entirely ideological platform with no political backing—and loses.

I sat down with Soda in Tokyo for a discussion of politics and society that centered on his latest film, The Big House (2018), co-directed with three professors and thirteen students, as part of a hands-on class in the classic American form of Direct Cinema at the University of Michigan. The film provides the viewer with a 360° maximum immersion sight and sound experience of Michigan Stadium—“The Big House” —in all its inner and outer workings.

Interview Transcript

Jeremy Harley: I was curious about the tagline for The Big House in Japan, “This is America!”…

Kazuhiro Soda: (laughs) That’s not mine! They (the distributor) came up with it!

Jeremy Harley: I was afraid you were going to say that! But your upcoming book too, about the making of this movie, is called Filming America (America o toru). What is “America”?

Kazuhiro Soda: I’ve been living in the United States for the past 25 years but I’d never made a feature length documentary on America. The Big House was the first documentary I made in America, and I felt that by creating this documentary I re-encountered or re-discovered what America is all about. Especially because the “Big House” (the stadium) looked like a microcosm of American society.

One thing I rediscovered is that the core of American culture is created because of how the country was founded. For example, the national anthem. We listen to it all the time, but when you think about the lyrics, it’s a description of a scene during a war, and it’s war that gave America a new country, it was the foundation of the country. In other words, America was created because of war. And also, America achieved democracy because of war. And the first president of the United States was a general. I kind of revisited this fact from a very different perspective through making this film, I think. And many Japanese viewers expressed to me that when they saw the lyrics in Japanese, they felt quite astonished. They knew what they were, but re-experiencing them…

Jeremy Harley: …and seeing them in the mouths of people all over the stadium singing them…

Kazuhiro Soda: …right. And if you look at the fight song of Michigan University, it’s also about winning and beating up your opponent. In a sense, America cannot escape from the fact that the country was formed because of war. Because of fighting. So in this sense, I think that explains a lot of things, for example foreign policy, how America invaded Afghanistan or Iraq. For American people, democracy is tied up with fighting, war. That’s why the name of the operation in Afghanistan was Enduring Freedom. Military action is a way to achieve democracy and freedom. And that’s true, because America was founded that way.

So I think American people are trying to recreate this winning experience all the time. And if you look at the history of American foreign policy, a lot of things can be explained this way. And also this football stadium became kind of like a ritual to enforce this kind of worldview or view on history or sense of values. It’s a theater and at the same time you re-experience this every time you attend the games. In that sense, I felt like I saw the core of what it is to be American.

It’s quite different from the Japanese way of imagining this country. If you compare the national anthems, it’s so clear. The national anthem of Japan is all about the Emperor. The world is the Emperor’s and this world should last forever. That’s what the lyrics are saying (laughs).

Jeremy Harley: Almost sounds peaceful.

Kazuhiro Soda: But it’s not democracy. That’s why I think Japanese people don’t understand democracy (laughs).

And when we showed (The Big House) to people in Berlin, at the Berlin Critics’ Week, the reaction was quite interesting too. Because of their Nazi past, they prohibit students from performing militaristic rituals like marching or singing the national anthem together at school. So they had an allergic reaction to all the “mass ornament” kind of actions in this film. Their reaction was very strong, and it’s very different from American people’s reaction to this film.

For American people, it’s the norm; this is the default of their experience, so most people don’t even have any doubt about what they are doing. But if you put it in a different context, it looks totally different. And we were even called complicit with fascism by creating this film.

Jeremy Harley: By whom?

Kazuhiro Soda: By a critic in Germany. So it was pretty interesting.

Jeremy Harley: Have the recent extreme politics in both Japan and America influenced the work you create?

Kazuhiro Soda: I’ve been a very politically aware person from when I was little. I remember when I was a kid, I was wondering why we don’t elect the Emperor (laughs). So I questioned my father. I remember, we were taking a bath together. I was probably six or seven years old. I asked him why we don’t choose the Emperor, although we choose everybody else. And he told me not to ask such questions outside of the house (laughs). So I’ve been very politically aware, and I see politics in everything. All of my films I think have some sort of a political viewpoint and make political observations. So it’s almost inevitable that politics become part of the subject matter of my films. Campaign and Campaign 2 happen to be directly about politics, but I’m not trying to use my films for political purposes, even those films.

So to answer your question, yes and no. Yes, I am affected in every way, because we cannot escape from politics, but politics is just one aspect of my interest towards this world. The world is filled with so many different interesting things, and politics is just one of them.

Jeremy Harley: One sees in Campaign and Campaign 2 how the LDP is almost all grassroots personal interaction, and it’s divorced from what their policies are, to a great degree.

Kazuhiro Soda: Right, it has nothing to do with their policies (laughs).

Jeremy Harley: Do you think that’s just what people want from a political party in Japan? And if so…

Kazuhiro Soda: It’s a big question, and it’s probably wrong to generalize everything. But when I limit my argument to what I saw through Campaign, I think the reason why certainly people in Kawasaki were engaged in this campaign was that it was a way for them to be connected with power. Most of the supporters and volunteers who supported Yama-san’s campaign were local… they run businesses, or they are farmers, or they have land, or they are the owners of a building they rent out, or they have small businesses. And they supported Yama-san because they knew that he was going to win, because he was supported by the LDP. So the LDP means power. When they support an LDP candidate, after the guy wins office, they have access to him. So when the motivation of being engaged with politics is this way, then what the candidate says in terms of policy doesn’t really mean anything. Unless the policy is spectacularly against their interests (laughs).

And if they support this candidate and if the candidate feels he or she owes something to them, then he or she will listen to them, and the local people can manipulate this politician they elected. I felt that that was the main motivation for them to be engaged. But that’s a very small circle of people. And outside that is the vast majority of people, just being ignorant about or not interested in the political process—they can be manipulated by propaganda all the time, and they can shift like the wind. So these two factors are in play at the same time. Depending on the situation, they have this very complicated influence on each other, which determines the outcome of the election.

That’s basically the problem that we face. On the one hand we have people that are only interested in access to power, and on the other hand we have a lot of people who are not interested in politics at all—they believe that politics has nothing to do with their lives, which is in fact very wrong. Because whoever takes power will affect their lives tremendously. So it’s a very wrong assumption that they have nothing to do with politics. But that’s the reality that I think we have.

Jeremy Harley: You describe the present political situation in your 2013 book Are Japanese People Trying to Throw Away Democracy? (Nihonjin wa minshushugi o sutetagatteirunoka?) as a kind of suicide by democracy, meaning that Japan has elected undemocratic leaders, through the democratic process. Do you think that’s what happened in America too?

Kazuhiro Soda: I think so. I think a very similar thing happened in America with the election of Trump. Trump is obviously not a champion of democracy. He doesn’t even use the word democracy. I’ve never heard him pronounce the word, have you?

Jeremy Harley: I don’t watch him, I’m sorry. I read what he says, sometimes, but…

Kazuhiro Soda: It’s hard to watch him, right? He’s so disgusting. But people elected him, right?

Jeremy Harley: Yes they did.

Kazuhiro Soda: So why did they? If they cared about democracy, they wouldn’t have voted for him. So democracy is not a priority for them. They have something else as a priority—that’s the conclusion I have to reach. And this is not such a unique situation, if you look at history. For example in Germany in the 1930s exactly the same thing happened.

We are living in a time when democracy is not necessarily a value that everyone agrees on. Obviously a pretty significant number of people think it doesn’t have to be democracy. It can be something else, it could be tyranny, it could be a dictator who rules the world—as long as they have benefits. In that sense it’s a very dangerous time.

And Japan was ahead of the game! (laughs) It’s being going on at least since 2012, when we elected Abe as prime minister. It’s interesting, usually we follow what’s happening in America, but this is the other way around (laughs). We got Abe and then Trump followed. But at least America has a strong opposition, which maybe we can have some hope for. But Japan is much less hopeful because the opposition force is very fragile, and also divided.

Jeremy Harley: Do you feel any hope for politicians like Edano and Nagatsuma?

Kazuhiro Soda: I have to have hope. But it’s not about them; it’s about us, right? It’s about the people. And I don’t know how much people appreciate their actions and way of thinking. I’m becoming quite pessimistic about the whole situation. But what’s important is that my opinion doesn’t really change. Even if the society shifts to a non-democratic one, or to fascism, I will continue to believe in the opposite way. I value individuality and I value everybody’s rights. I think it’s important that everybody has differences, but still co-exist in harmony. That’s the ultimate ideal. It’s not healthy for there to be no differences between people, just becoming one, like a big creature. I don’t want to be a part of that kind of society. That doesn’t change. I will continue to say what I believe in and I will continue to do what I believe is right and in that sense nothing will change. And hopefully we will have more people like that (laughs).

Jeremy Harley: Koichi Toyama has been a fascist for over ten years, since before even Abe or Trump, on the grounds that people in Japan aren’t interested in democracy and so the country should be made fascist. That the people who are interested in politics should take part, while those who aren’t, shouldn’t. And I watch the elections in Japan and I watch Trump, and I can’t say that he’s wrong. Not that I can endorse what he says either.

Kazuhiro Soda: Right, it’s something that Eric Fromm already pointed out in the 1930s. We have this tendency that we want to escape from freedom. When we have freedom, we feel a little bit apprehensive. We don’t know what to do with it. We have this desire to just give it up to somebody. To be submissive, and just be part of a larger group. It’s just there. That’s partly because we are creatures that cannot survive without each other. If I was all alone in this world, I couldn’t survive. I can only survive because there are many other people, and everybody does different jobs, for example I can’t survive even one day without water or food—I can’t prepare everything from scratch all alone; it’s impossible. Also the clothes I wear—so many people are working to realize them, from the material to sewing to transportation, whatever. I don’t know how many people are involved in these clothes. We are social animals, social creatures. Sometimes we cannot endure being alone, and being individual—we have this also. We are being constantly invited to fascism. And what you see in Michigan Stadium is a demonstration of that. It feels so good when you lose yourself and feel like you are a part of a larger something. If you’re rooting for your team and wearing the same colors and singing the same song at the same time with 100,000 people, you feel good! I felt good too. Although I’m not from Michigan, and I’m Japanese. But when I was there shooting, I felt so good. Which was very scary too (laughs). And I felt a desire inside of me, to be connected with everybody else and to be lost in this crowd, to be part of this huge creature. The problem is that politicians are trying to use that, use this tendency that we have.

The Big House opens at Theatre Image Forum in Tokyo and at select theaters across the country on June 9. His film Inland Sea is already in nationwide release. One retrospective of Soda’s work is presently available both on Uplink Cloud, while another will show at Theatre Image Forum from June 2 through June 8.

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