Tell the Prime Minister: Eiji Oguma’s portrait of a changing Tokyo and the anti-nuclear power movement

Thanks to a free screening at Sophia University, I finally got a chance to see Tell the Prime Minister (or Shushō Kantei no Mae de in Japanese, literally, “In Front of the Prime Minister’s Residence”), which has been playing at Uplink and elsewhere since last year.

Eiji Oguma, an award-winning sociologist and historian, took the unusual step of making a documentary film, shooting interviews with participants from the 2011-12 post-Fukushima protests movements which were then spliced with crowd-sourced footage of various demonstrations, confrontations and other interviews from that liminal period in Tokyo.

In this way, the film is similar to 1968, Oguma’s bestselling yet formidably long, two-volume history of the last 1960s protest movements in Japan. Like his earlier work, the film collates a lot of other people’s materials to form a new narrative and documentation of the era. However, while 1968 was criticised in part by some original activists for relying solely on archive materials and not including the raw voices of actual participants, in this respect Tell the Prime Minister does not fall into that academic trap. Those voices are here the protagonists of his film.

While a popular academic and a common face in the mainstream media, Oguma’s decision to demote himself to Young Turk documentarian is a brave one, since working in the medium of film risks “relegating” his efforts to the nethersphere of popular culture. At any rate, we don’t brook such snobbery here. The documentary also places Oguma with the other polemical documentary filmmakers who have made films about related topics in recent years, such as John Junkerman and Linda Hoagulund (who was a consultant on Oguma’s film).

Oguma’s curation of his narrative highlights certain early demonstrations and actions in 2011, before culminating in the large-scale protests in the summer of 2012, paralleled by meetings between protest leaders and officials (valuable footage of which is included). While much of the events and images will be familiar — especially for those of us who were living in Tokyo at the time — the structuring is lucid and even at times refreshing, plus there is plenty of footage featuring rare and revealing moments, such as an impromptu dialogue with a candid ambassador’s wife in Harajuku during the anxious time when many foreign expats were fleeing (the so-called “flyjin” phenomenon). The interviews themselves are restrained and straightforward, but Oguma pulls off a coup — helped by his academic cachet, no doubt — in securing Naoto Kan, the prime minister at the time but since much reduced in political circumstances.

The film draws attention to September 2011 as marking a point of decline due to a police crackdown, and then the August 2012 meeting between protestors with Kan’s successor as premier, Yoshihiko Noda, as the kind of peak or supreme achievement of the movement (incidentally, a meeting at which Oguma is present as part of protestors’ delegation and he can be spotted in the footage, though he is careful to edit out any speeches he himself may have made then). The framing of the meeting in the film and subsequent captions suggest that the protestors convinced Noda to change his stance on nuclear power, and the DPJ to adopt a policy of eventually phasing out the reactors (as Kan had also advocated). This triumph was then snatched away by the December 2012 victory of the conservative LDP. Needless to say, this is debatable and the Japanese corridors of power are surely less febrile places than such a clearcut juxtaposition may present, but it makes for good cinema.

kantei-mae film tell the prime minister eiji oguma documentary

Some will certainly argue that the narrative is too tidy and focuses too much on certain types of participants in the protest movement(s). Regardless, it is simply interesting in its own right to see any form of clean structure applied to the events of 2011-12, which is still relatively rare. (Moreover, any attempt to compile comprehensively is doomed to imperfection, as I have found in writing my own modest book about post-war radical movements.) This process of chronicling and chronologising is especially important since no doubt in the future people will look back and see the social movements of those two fluid years as a prologue to the anti-Abe movements of 2013-15 (and ongoing, depending on what happens this year in the run-up to the election).

Not only in the wake of Anpo 2014-15, it is also insightful to view it now in 2016 since in 2011-12 it was actually hard to keep track and follow everything that was happening. Caught in a whirlwind of constant street noise and a barrage of social media commentary, it took the accounts published from 2013 to organise things, though of course this presents dilemmas of interpretation at every turn. (Oguma’s emergence as THE academic associated with the post-Fukushima movement and Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes also has a nice parallel with how certain academics like Kōichi Nakano and Genichirō Takahashi have affiliated themselves with SEALDs.)

Bias is, inevitably, an issue, as it is with any documentary. Oguma doesn’t play his cards close to his chest; it is obvious which side he is on and why he thinks it is important to cover these movements. One demonstration by Shirōto no Ran in Shinjuku that is being disrupted by police and forced to move elsewhere is shown only from the perspective of the activists. The footage is filmed low, showing the leader of the protest trying to announce to the attendees about the location change. Veteran activist Karin Amamiya stands nearby, laughing as an unseen police officer on a loudspeaker — the pompous “voice of authority” — continues to harangue the demonstrators, telling them to disperse immediately. It is funny, because the activist is trying to comply but isn’t being allowed to: it shows the police’s attempts to suppress the demo (at least, this is how it is described and how it essentially cannot help appearing) look absurd, a Little Napoleon pointless breaking up a party that cannot and should not be kept down. However, one wonders how it might have looked from a wide shot, with a “horde” or “mob” of rough Kōenji counterculturists milling around the plaza outside Shinjuku Station’s East Exit. (To be fair, though, the demo was formally registered in advance for that location — a common protest march starting point — so there seems little reason for the police actions, except just that the officers were frightened by the unexpected numbers of the demonstrators.)

Any history or documentary cannot help but be selective, and Oguma’s is no different. For example, you might have expected him to include footage or interviews with the organisers of the occupy tents in front of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, since its geography is certain in line with the Kantei and Shinjuku protests he covers. But the occupy tents are associated with hardened activists, which might not fit in with his thesis (and it is a common refrain): Fukushima made average Mr Tanaka political.

No, for the most part the interviews eschew experienced activists or even the main protagonists in the actual movement, perhaps with a couple of notable exceptions (Misao Redwolf being one). The emphasis is on ordinary participants or, even if they identify as anarchists or anti-establishment figures, nonetheless their “ordinariness” is brought to the fore in their own measured descriptions of their behaviour and thought processes at the time of the protests. Even when they are angry, it is a quiet anger. When they are polemicising, they are also self-deprecating. (Even Kan does not come across as the one-time leader of the world’s third largest economic power.)

In this sense, the film joins the array of recent ethnographical materials and visual documentation projects documenting the post-3.11 social movements, such as Voices of Tōhoku, Tōhoku kara no Koe (similarly named, Voices from Tōhoku), Akira Takayama and Port B’s Referendum Project, and Voices of Protest Japan, which likewise feature only archives of interviews and testimonies. While Oguma’s film is not as “pure” as that — nor does it pretend to be — and at times is quite precisely edited and shaped towards a certain agenda, it nonetheless places the onus on the viewer to take up the challenges left hanging at the end of 2012, when the LDP swept back to power and reversed the DPJ’s stand against nuclear power in Japan.

A major distinction, though, is that Oguma focuses solely on the space of Tokyo and the participants on the streets of that city, whether they be evacuees, west Tokyo counterculturists or the apolitical salaryman galvanised into action. He seeks to record how the city discovered itself and how public space — both figurative and physical — was occupied and transformed over the course of the two years. In many ways, despite the ostensible failure of the movement, his message is a positive one, which results perhaps from honing his film into a portrait of an evolving city more than of certain activists per se. “You can find yourself in this film,” as the English tagline says. When citizens of a city come together, almost anyone can be involved — and almost anything can then happen.

For want of a better place to put this, I will end with a minor gripe: the English subtitles (by Oguma himself) do need some further proofing, not just for minor grammatical issues but also for some more serious mistakes in the screen captions. I spotted at least one factual error where the English and Japanese did not match.


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