Review: Yokai no Mago

The title of this new Japanese documentary translates as “Grandchild of the Monster,” with “monster” referring to the late Nobusuke Kishi, who was prime minister from 1957 to 1960 and often called the “monster of the Showa Era.” The term does not necessarily connote a malevolent being (though many do consider him such) but rather someone whose influence was so prevalent as to be overpowering. After all, he masterminded the industrial development of the puppet state of Manchuria and was imprisoned by the American occupation forces as a war criminal, only to be released because of his value to U.S. Cold War aims in Japan. The subject of the documentary, the late Shinzo Abe, was Kishi’s grandson on Abe’s mother’s side. 

At first the purposes of director Taketo Uchiyama, whose previous doc was about former prime minister Yoshihide Suga, seem to be to analogize Abe’s rise to Kishi’s, but he theorizes that Abe, who became the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history, saw his grandfather as more of a rival than a hero to be emulated. Abe’s father, Shintaro, was a powerful politician himself who had no time to attend to his son, and, for that matter, neither did his mother, whose job was to support her husband in his political endeavors. Shinzo was basically raised in Tokyo by a nanny, far from his father’s constituency in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Abe was a poor student and self-centered, so when he did have contact with his mother, she was invariably critical of his attitude, especially toward school. One biographer thinks Shinzo’s hurt feelings metastasized into a determination to outdo his mother’s father in the political realm by accomplishing those things that Kishi couldn’t, in particular revising the postwar Constitution. 

Consequently, Abe’s political career was fueled by personal resentment, and while he is identified with certain policies, his whole public outlook was geared toward electability and little else. More than one interviewee comments that Abe was not a deep thinker and likely didn’t even understand his policies, but that was OK. Topics were chosen for how easily they could be understood by the public, and if the public found them boring, all the better since low voter turnout was one of the Liberal Democratic Party’s most effective schemes. Much is made of Abe’s hatred of the media and his campaign of initimidation, a charge he laughed off. But the proof is in the pudding: Abe never really had very much public support, so his staying power was simply a matter of keeping the opposition off-balance and not confusing those who did vote. When he finally did leave the PM’s office, the people were sufficiently sick of him, notwithstanding all the subsequent fuss kicked up by his state funeral. 

In that regard, the movie doesn’t have anything new to add, though it does spend an inordinate amount of time on an alleged deal that Abe made with underworld types in his Yamaguchi constituency to intimidate the rival of a local politician he supported back in 2000. The fact that the matter got out of hand and ended up in court proved two things: Abe is clumsier than he seems (the Moritomo and sakura party affairs reveal the same thing), and that he has an uncanny ability to shrug off scandal and get other people to take the fall for him. That ability in and of itself has a monstrous quality to it.

In Japanese. Opens March 17 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011).

Yokai no Mago home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2023 Yokai no Mago Seisaku Iinkai

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