With a career spanning more than 40 years, veteran documentarian Kazuo Hara cannot exactly be described as prolific. His films can often take years to produce, his upcoming documentary on the Minamata disease apparently having been in development for the last decade and a half. Perhaps appropriately enough Reiwa Uprising (れいわ一揆, Reiwa Ikki) is then something of a revolution even within the director’s own career in that it saw him spring into action at a moment’s notice after being invited to document the imminent House of Councillors election by the documentary’s subject, Ayumi Yasutomi, making good on a joke made during an online interview. 

A transgender woman and professor at the University of Tokyo, Ayumi Yasutomi had received some previous press attention during an eccentric but unsuccessful campaign to become a local mayor. She was now one of 10 candidates selected to stand for brand new political party Reiwa Shinsengumi founded by former actor Taro Yamamoto. Yamamoto himself was already known for his unconventional political style, and Reiwa Shinsengumi was set up expressly to oppose the scandal-beset Abe administration with a series of broadly left-wing policies prioritising human rights and the environment in addition to pushing for an end to the consumption tax, nuclear power, and the controversial Henoko US military base in Okinawa. 

As a new political party, however, there was no firm organisation in place and Yamamoto chose his various candidates for their individual platforms, giving them in the main a fairly free rein to run their own campaign as they saw fit prioritising their own policy ideals. Yasutomi’s central policies revolve around the protection of children with a focus on preventing abuse and reform of the educational system, but she is also keen to encourage a return to nature and as in her mayoral campaign is regularly accompanied by a rented horse temporarily stabled in the city. Like Yamamoto she stages a series of publicity stunts including a Thriller flashmob, describing the video’s zombies as adults who have died inside after being robbed of their childhoods and have subsequently become mere machines perpetuating the systems of oppression which have made them what they are, while continuing with the musical processions which had originally caught Hara’s eye during her mayoral campaign. 

Though Yasutomi remains his main focus, Hara expands the canvas to capture the nascent revolution that Reiwa Shinsengumi is attempting to foster. As a new political party, they are not so much focussed on winning power as gaining a foothold, hoping for the 2% vote share that would grant them status as an official political party. The other candidates stand on a variety of social issue policy platforms from disability to workplace exploitation and the anti-nuclear movement with a keen focus on social equality insisting that no-one should be judged according to their “productivity” or “usefulness” to society. A sign language interpreter appears onstage next to the candidates at the central rallies, and in an impressive hustings gimmick the floor literally rises to allow his two wheelchair-using candidates access to the stage on the same level as their able-bodied colleagues. It is perhaps an unexpected candidate who makes the most impact, however, in the impassioned speeches of part-time worker and single mother Teruko Watanabe who advocates fiercely for the rights and dignities of Japan’s impoverished working class as a woman who found herself at the mercy of an inherently exploitative employment system which offers little protection to those outside of the full-time salaried employee. Her concerns are echoed in those of another candidate who once ran a 7-Eleven and has a deeply held grudge against Japan’s famous combini culture having taken the unusual position of being a boss who regularly advocated on behalf of workers. 

While passively documenting their struggle, Hara nevertheless uncovers a possible schism at the heart of the movement in that, as unconventional as he otherwise is, Yamamoto is determined to work within the system if only to change it while Yasutomi would rather destroy it completely, repeatedly insisting that the entire country is “crazy” and has never fully managed to escape from its militarist past. She resents the ruling LDP, who have been in power for almost the entirety of the period since Japan’s new post-war constitution came into effect, for perpetuating a kind of “positionism” in which all they care about is a conservative desire to maintain their own status granting only the concession that they will in turn recognise the status of others. It’s this “positionism” she seeks to counter in what she sees as the best expression of liberalism through rejecting labels, something which has apparently brought her into conflict with the wider LGBTQ+ community. Reiwa Shinsengumi managed to win two Diet seats, awarded to the two disabled candidates in a first for Japan, though Yamamoto himself did not make it back to parliament and Shinzo Abe’s administration remained comfortably in power. Nevertheless, Hara captures a political moment in which real change seems possible for the perhaps the first time since the decline of the post-war leftwing student movement in the early 1970s. As Watanabe puts it, this is just the start the starting line. The revolution starts now. 


Reiwa Uprising is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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