Some thoughts on the SEALDs documentary “About My Liberty”

Although released originally in May, it is timely to catch About My Liberty: SEALDs 2015 now while it continues to play (with English subtitles) at Uplink in Shibuya. Alongside Shimin Rengō (Civil Alliance for Peace and Constitutionalism) and the opposition parties, SEALDs (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy-s) is currently cranking up its efforts for the House of Councillors election in July, after which the group will formerly disband and ostensibly hand over the reins to other activists. The main members will be graduating and moving on to fresh pastures.

Takashi Nishihara’s film might be more accurately described as documentation than documentary. As such, it is primarily of interest to SEALDs “fans” or researchers seeking a glance “behind the scenes” of the group’s activities in summer 2015 as part of the mass protests against the government’s controversial state security bills, which gave legal consent to participating in an overseas conflict for the first time since 1945. The film should be treated more as an ethnographic project than an artistic one, which is not meant to damn it with faint praise per se. That being said, newcomers will be confused by some of the content and left with questions that can only be answered elsewhere.

sealds about my liberty documentary

I had originally speculated that the film, as such documentaries are apt to do, might prematurely “memorialise” the SEALDs movement, pegging and fossilising it as a brief yet exciting period in recent history. In fact, the film does not fall into this trap, though this is more on account of its flaws and what it fatally misses out.

The results feel somewhat like Nishihara started filming in the early summer of 2015 and gradually realised he was capturing something bigger than expected. He was apparently left with a lot of footage and then attempted to fashion a “film” out of it. However, the lack of curation is clear both in the filming and editing: there are obvious gaps in what was shot and what was not, yet the film does not really attempt to mediate these. It focuses on the core SEALDs team, in particular three members: Aki Okuda, Yoshimasa Ushida and Mana Shibata. There is a structure (five chapters and an epilogue), but there is also a lot of flab. At nearly three hours, it is certainly overlong. Was it really necessary, for example, to have so many records of the members’ speeches outside the Diet during the summer nights? Even Okuda’s much-publicised and lauded speech to the House of Councillors special committee on the bills was shown almost in full.

The prehistory of SEALDs is only glossed at the start. In spite of the long interviews and footage of conversations with the students about liberty, peace and constitutionalism, there is little indication of the motivations or initial inspirations for the students. In other words, what was the point at which they decided to commit to the movement? Instead, we are handed a ready-made unit that had emerged from SASPL, the previous group formed in 2014 in opposition to the state secrets bill.

We then observe SEALDs doing what it did best: organising and mobilising. We see footage of team meetings to design posters and t-shirts, and decide demonstration locations, and then the management and operation of demos and events, from updating social media accounts and loading trucks with equipment to even picking up trash afterwards (SEALDs are a “clean” protest group in the literal sense of the word).

It is tempting to refer to that much-cited 1989 paper by Patricia G. Steinhoff, “Hijackers, Bombers and Bank Robbers: Managerial Style in the Japanese Red Army”.

The original Sekigun-ha attracted the bright sons and daughters of regional elites from all over Japan. They were successful products of the college entrance examination system, destined like their classmates for careers in large corporations, government, medicine, or education. Had they not gone into Sekigun-ha, they probably would have passed uneventfully into the elite bureaucracies of contemporary Japan … They brought to Sekigun a certain innocence about the way things are supposed to be done. In a new organisation of their own creation, they had the freedom to devise new ways of relating and new procedures for accomplishing their aims.

Steinhoff highlights the shift towards autonomous work groups, communications systems, division of labour by gender, and precision planning. All this sounds very familiar. Surely there is a paper waiting to be written closely comparing various management structures and activities of SEALDs and New Left groups, though we should be clear: SEALDs’ aims in 2015 were a million miles away from Sekigun’s.

Before we descend further into false analogies between the New Left and the decidedly liberal SEALDs, we should note how the film is at pains to present the students as “normal”, and quite rightly so. There are some hints of intellectual leanings but even these are kept to a minimum. There is no dogma, no posturing. The speeches are delivered in a vernacular accessible to all, since this is the only language the activists themselves know. A few times there are passionate moments that approach fanaticism, only for the spell to be broken and remind us these are ordinary enough Tokyo students. At one point, Okuda is shown crying; these are emotional, vulnerable characters who are easy to relate to, though it would have been even easier to do so if we had known more about them.

Indeed, we don’t learn anything about the three main members’ backgrounds until a third of the way through and then this is pretty much dropped. In fact, we only discover these initial nuggets from footage of an interview between the main members and Genichirō Takahashi, the novelist (and Okuda’s teacher at Meiji Gakuin University). This was actually one of the interviews that became the book Tell Me What Democracy Looks Like? (sic). As many of the potential audience would have already read the best-selling book, it is not even new information per se. And it is also revealing that Takahashi is not even formally identified. Instead, the camera pans over the book and we are expected to make the leap, so those in the know will realise but it is sloppy film-making not to frame this properly. That being said, there is interesting footage of Ushida at the small home he shares with his mother, and we learn about his relative financial hardships.

We also get hints of the criticism the group faced, though it would have made for a fuller documentary to have also addressed the misogyny the female members experienced online, and the slander and discrimination Okuda suffered. How did this affect them? How did it change their lifestyles or hopes for future careers?

For the duration of the nearly three-hour running time, we do not zoom out from the members of the group. The film does not explain any real background to the security bills other than what comes out of people’s mouths during the casual interviews. There is no geopolitical context, nor does it show why the bills posed such a risk for Japan in terms of the global situation (e.g. US involvement in Middle East conflicts). That is not to say that the main SEALDs members are not aware of this — Okuda and Ushida, in particular, come across as quite worldly — but the fact that this is never shown or apparently discussed lays them open to their critics, which is an error considering the film is in essence officially endorsed by SEALDs.

There are no outside voices to contextualise the movement properly in the post-3.11 period and history, nor to challenge the students over their arguably false appropriation of words like “fascist” (though so many were guilty of calling Shinzō Abe by this lazy label in 2015). One SEALDs member even discusses Auschwitz during one speech, which is very troubling. The Final Solution should not be invoked to talk about a violation to Japan’s Constitution.

Moreover, SEALDs’ talismanic referencing of Anpo 1960 and the legendary “300,000” — the number of demonstrators who at one point surrounded the Diet in June — is problematic. SEALDs highlight this to show achievement: getting so many people meant that Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, and his Cabinet, resigned. However, this is historical naivety. Kishi resigned only after Anpo was passed, so the protests ultimately failed. Kishi was forced out because his approval ratings had plummeted, yet it made not a jot of difference (this is another reason why last year’s movement’s focus so much on Abe was potentially self-defeating) in the long run. The LDP remained in power; the opposition parties were weakened throughout the decade, and Anpo was also renewed again in 1970 in spite of massive protests.

The film also ignores controversies, such as the arrests of protesters over the summer (not SEALDs members, it must be said, but it also shows that the demonstrations were not all peaceful affairs) and the scuffles SEALDs’ “minders” had with the more radical Zengakuren. And yet the footage by and large avoids the typical images of state violence, which was refreshing and quite possibly a deliberate choice.

It is unfair only to discuss what the film misses out: there is plenty to consume and observe. On an anecdotal level, it was also a pleasant surprise to see two familiar Davids in the film: David McNeill at the FCCJ during a SEALDs press conference, and Professor David Slater teaching a class at Sophia University that includes Shibata. Also look out for a pair of prominent foreign photojournalists hanging around in the background of shots of the nighttime demonstrations at the Diet, vying to get their lens on the well-heeled youngsters.

The filming style is mostly straightforward enough, though there is one bravado sequence as we follow Ushida and others, getting an incredible POV shot of the demonstrators as they rush through the police lines to occupy the main road in front of the Diet. After the bills pass in September and the movement becomes, superficially speaking, a failure, the film makes a conscious effort not to dwell on disillusionment. Rather, it finishes with footage of a positive scene of the new blood, T-ns SOWL (Teens Stand up to Oppose War Law), following a sound truck through Shibuya. The film definitely gets one thing right, then: protest is still alive on the streets of Tokyo.

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