Review: Kagawa District 1

Director Arata Oshima’s followup to last year’s surprise hit documentary, Why You Can’t Be Prime Minister, is a clear case of striking while the iron is hot. Prime Minister focused on lawmaker Junya Ogawa, a walking cliche of political idealism from Takamatsu city in Kagawa Prefecture. The point of the film was to show how an idealist has little chance of seeing their policies come to fruition in a political climate that automatically relegates such people to irrelevancy as part of the permanent opposition, and while Oshima was fairly successful delineating this theme, in the end what emerged was mostly a profile of Ogawa that painted him as naive and earnest without making much of the quixotic policies he championed, which centered on poverty and sustainability. 

Kagawa District 1 (Kagawa Ikku) still doesn’t explain coherently what Ogawa wants to accomplish as a politician, but the mission of the movie is simpler and less open to reinterpretation. Oshima simply follows Ogawa’s 2021 campaign to win the lower house seat for the titular constituency, something he hasn’t achieved yet. His seat in the Diet has always been secured as a proportional candidate for whichever opposition party he’s belonged to. The constituency has always been won by his ruling Liberal Democratic Party nemesis Takuya Hirai, a dynastic politician whose family owns the region’s most prominent newspaper, as well as other businesses with deep roots in Takamatsu. However, Prime Minister made Ogawa a nationwide star, and the people of Kagawa District 1 noticed. Though Oshima doesn’t say so outright, his new movie, which follows the campaign right up to the election on October 31 and beyond, is basically a study on how much that earlier exposure had transformed Ogawa into a bankable candidate. 

Quite a bit, it would seem, though the only person who makes much of it is Hirai himself. Early in the film, Oshima visits Hirai in his office, and while Hirai is polite he gives of a palpable air of unease and states quite plainly that he’s never seen Prime Minister. For his part, Oshima seems somewhat intimidated (“I’ve never exchanged business cards with a cabinet minister”). Hirai says he doesn’t mind that Oshima is making another documentary about Ogawa during an election campaign, but if it encourages more people to “become interested in politics,” then that can only be a good thing. But while Oshima’s ostensible reason for meeting with Hirai is to grill him about a minor scandal he’s incurred as the head of the newly minted Digital Agency, it’s obvious that he wants to give the incumbent a personal heads up that he will be following him as well as following Ogawa over the coming weeks.

This tension between Oshima and the Hirai camp will become a sub-theme of the movie as Oshima studies Hirai’s influence in the region, which extends beyond the Shikoku Shimbun (which dedicates six pages to Hirai’s appointment as Digital Agency chief) to a larger hold on hearts and minds. One young voter tells Oshima that the locals don’t really like the kind of “rising figure” that Ogawa has always represented, and only trust established players like the LDP. Realizing that Ogawa needs to secure more votes in certain corners of the district, his campaign manager rents an office on Shodo Island, where Ogawa lost big in the last election. 

But even while Hirai finds himself involved in another scandal—a weekly magazine reports he was wined and dined by NTT in the recent past—Ogawa himself is seen to misstep by trying to talk a candidate from the Japan Innovation Party out of running in the election, since JIP is nominally an opposition party and thus could potentially drain votes from Ogawa, even if, ideologically, JIP is closer to the LDP. The news of his meeting with the candidate, a woman who was apparently inserted into the campaign by a different opposition party lawmaker from an adjoining district, scandalizes Oshima’s party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which scolds him publicly for trying to undermine democratic processes. Ogawa is uncharacteristically defiant and tells off a nationally prominent journalist (who likes Ogawa even if he doesn’t think he’s got the stuff to make an effective lawmaker) who also thought he did the wrong thing. Actually, this sequence highlights a relevant issue that was also central to Prime Minister, which is that Ogawa thinks Japan has too many opposition parties, and that if they really want to supplant the LDP, they have to not so much work together but get rid of the driftwood and centralize their resources.

As the campaign heats up in earnest, Ogawa finds himself attracting larger and larger crowds. Hirai takes out his frustrations on Oshima. During one campaign rally Hirai tells whoever is listening that it’s unfair that Ogawa is the subject of a documentary, which only goes to show how paranoid and out-of-touch Hirai is. Obviously, Oshima’s movie isn’t coming out until well after the election is over, but just Oshima’s presence sets Hirai off. Consequently, whenever Hirai’s security notices Oshima or his crew recording their actions they try to shut them down and threaten to call the police (who do nothing, because Oshima isn’t doing anything illegal). When Oshima shows up at a closed Hirai rally that features Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the official at the door angrily refuses him entrance without providing a reason, even though Oshima is registered as a legitimate member of the press. 

But the biggest indicator of Oshima’s influence is that there are a lot of national reporters covering a race in this small corner of Shikoku, meaning that it may be the only campaign outside of Tokyo that offers some drama and excitement. And, of course, Ogawa wins in an appropriately emotional manner: the underdog has overcome, though it’s clear from the beginning of the movie that Ogawa was never an underdog thanks to Oshima. Hirai’s scandals really didn’t have anything to do with it, nor did a bit of Hirai campaign finance sleight-of-hand that Oshima uncovers regarding “party tickets” that may be illegal. As the anonymous youth said earlier, such things don’t really bother the people of Takamatsu, but they are suckers for celebrity and were flattered that the national press was taking notice. And it was all because of Ogawa, albeit through Oshima.

In an epilogue, Ogawa loses his bid for his party’s leadership role at the end of November, almost a month before the new documentary is to be released. It really is up-to-the-minute, which may be why it feels a bit flabby. At more than two-and-a-half-hours, Kagawa District 1 contains a great deal that’s redundant, and the movie as a whole will likely interest even fewer people than Prime Minister did since it so clinically follows a single election campaign. But as far as that goes, it’s a superior film to Prime Minister if only because Oshima, a dynastic filmmaker himself (for what it’s worth, his father was the most contentious major filmmaker in Japanese cinema), more clearly knows what he wants and, most significantly, how to get it.

In Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Cine Libre Ikebukuro (03-3590-2126), Polepole Higashi Nakano (03-3371-0088).

Kagawa District 1 home page in Japanese

photo (c) Netzgen

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