As we approach the end of the Heisei period with the abdication of the current emperor — a situation unprecedented in modern times — we can expect the sound and fury of the ultra-nationalists’ black vans, known as uyoku gaisensha, to grow louder and more numerous, especially as small yet brave anti-emperor protests also increase. The continued tensions with North Korea and Japan’s other neighbours also adds fuel to the more recent and effectively discrete wave of nationalist and far-right marchers whose xenophobia has now been legally identified and banned as hate speech. In short, it’s a liminal point in time for the far Right.
Observers of ultra-nationalism in Japan — and I hesitate to include myself among them, specialising more in far-left radicalism — have a lot to process at present. Perhaps this is why we are also seeing various developments at once, including the publication of an English translation of Naoto Higuchi’s Japan’s Ultra-Right and Meirō Koizumi’s film Today My Empire Sings (of which a long-in-gestation article to appear one day soon). And when a Spaniard was spotted at several hate speech rallies and marches, it seemed initially too good to be true. Is he just trolling them, a satirist willing to go further than others would dare?
Though parody thrives, political satire in Japan, much less mockumentary, is rare. The comedian Minoru Torihada or the stand-up Hiro Matsumoto are two prominent outliers, but they are cult or fringe figures. Overseas, the last few years have yielded gold dust for the likes of Chris Morris or Armando Iannucci, not to mention the immense boost that the Trump administration has gifted comedy and satire in the United States. But don’t expect television comics in Japan to step up in this way.
And so it falls to an independent film-maker to produce what may be one of the most courageous works of the year. And though announced last year, Go! Go! Second-Time Gaijin now almost feels like a case of life being stranger than fiction in the viral wake of our Spanish advocate for Japanese ultra-nationalism.
Directed by Robert Nishimura, a long-time resident of Yamaguchi, and written by Nishimura and Stirling Perry, the mockumentary is a snappy 60 minutes that starts as a cod Pathe-style trailer with plummy British narration tracing the rise of the uyoku dantai (ultra-nationalist groups) and ideas of racial purity in post-war Japan. We are then introduced to Kazuo Ishida (played by Nishimura himself), leader and sole member of the Great Japan Purity Party. The eponymous foreigner (gaijin) proudly presents the alterations he has made to his car with flags, slogans and loudspeakers. At first we do not see his face but the shot then pans to his face as he speaks to camera: a white man wearing a standard uyoku-style jumpsuit with a flag.
The film largely focuses on Ishida’s preparations for a trip to Yasukuni Shrine to take part in the August 15th parade, when caravans of uyoku dantai vehicles converge on central Tokyo to mark the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II. Chilling footage of this is edited into the start and end of the film.
Why does Ishida believe he is Japanese, much less an ultra-nationalist? He apparently fell down the stairs when leaving the immigration office after completing his naturalisation application. The bump on the head made him completely fluent in Japanese and believe himself to be a Japanese nationalist. His Japanese wife is resigned to this personality change — and is actually more concerned about the dodgy film-makers with whom her husband is now associating.
Ishida’s voice is dubbed over by one with a native Japanese accent, and the attempts to mask this are deliberately only superficial. When speaking on his car to locals in his rural backwater, the scenario is funny but partially deflated by the lack of sense of tangible danger as the audio sounds like it has been added in post-production. The “bystanders” are, of course, actors. That being said, when he visits the immigration office and shouts at other foreigners, it is laugh-out-loud funny. There is another hilarious moment when Ishida for the first time meets “a fellow compatriot” he met online and the reaction of the man is, well, let’s just say less than welcoming.
Some names in the credits are redacted, which may seem like a gimmick to imitate edgy documentaries, but could also be an actual precaution at the request of certain participants against rightist reprisals. (The film did suffer a few production difficulties and rejections due to its delicate subject matter.) Nishimura resorted to guerrilla-style tactics at times to secure the footage he wanted. “I withheld certain plot points to get genuine interviews,” he told me. Likewise, the uyoku seen in certain shots were naturally not aware that they were extras in a mockumentary, though he more or less managed to avoid major confrontations with real ultra-nationalists and the authorities. “The only problem we had was during preliminary shooting, when the police rolled up while I was driving the gaisensha through the Korean district. Once they realised I was white, they were too shocked and confused by it to even ask my name so they just let me go.”
With its vociferous, irrepressible subject who drives around Japan causing mischief, the film evidently recalls Kazuo Hara’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987). Nishimura throws in another sly reference to Hara with his title (the “go, go” echoes the Japanese name for Hara’s film) as well as to Kōji Wakamatsu’s Go, Go, Second-Time Virgin (1969). Long-term expats in Japan may also sense how Ishida is a kind of inversion of Debito Arudou, an American who became a naturalised Japanese citizen. Arudou, who was involved with the film at one point, is regarded by supporters as a tireless champion of human rights, and as a pointless troublemaker by his detractors.
Ishida is not actually the only gaijin in the uyoku. A Korean-Japanese interviewee at one point explains that he has Korean friends who are part of the uyoku, doing it for work or to deflect attention from themselves. (This is not a cheap gag but a reference to something of an open secret about the far Right in Japan.) But he worries that a person who is so obviously not “Japanese” pretending to be an ultra-nationalist will insult and provoke others.
The central conceit of the film is that it is a not just a mockumentary but also a meta-film. The “director”, Katō, is shown explaining to the camera about how he stumbled upon the foreigner and was inspired to make a film about him. “This documentary will change everything,” he promises. At times, it isn’t clear who is the more deluded: the “artist” making the film or the gaijin? Much of the humour revolves around the incompetence of the “film crew” as they try to interact with the subject and interviewees as well as the pretentious posturing of the sunshades-sporting auteur, constantly griping because he can’t get the shots he wants. The director and his cameraman bicker about the director’s silly attempts to stage scenes in the documentary, such as getting the foreigner to go to the Russian Embassy. This forms a kind of clownish mirror for the titular gaijin, reflecting his own risibility. The crew-of-one even answers back to the Ishida during interviews (“Don’t we need to remain open to the world?”).
Ishida, however, believes the film-within-the-film is a collaboration; they are helping him make a propaganda film. He then starts to take over by hiring a composer to score a soundtrack. In this way, the film morphs into a sharp examination on the relationship between the artist and subject. This reaches a climax at the end when the director and his long-suffering cameraman have to decide whether to accompany Ishida to Yasukuni. Fearing genuine danger, they struggle ethically and artistically over what to do.
The finale at Yasukuni is nail-biting stuff as Ishida wanders around in his jumpsuit while real uyoku dantai line the streets of Tokyo. Will they notice him? Will they realise this is a mockumentary? Would they even understand? When he finds himself isolated from the procession, we are left with a portrait of a naive individual alone in his self-satisfied radicalism. It’s a brilliant image of the grim reality of most uyoku, foreign or otherwise. “I am a true believer,” he claims, but we cannot agree.
Though pestered by the film crew in interviews about the uyoku and the gaijin, the public is indifferent. This becomes a running joke. No one seems to notice that the gaijin is a nationalist — or even care. But this is not just a joke. It is a sharp commentary on the apathy of the Japanese electorate, who are indeed so accustomed to these racist and nationalist elements in society that they turn a blind eye. The problem is that the uyoku dantai are only the most obvious, wacky example, and there are more insidious, subtle ones concealed within the ranks of the media and establishment. As suggested by the final shots of the film, revealing what Ishida ultimately does next, ignore them at your peril or they may wheedle their way into power.
The parallel between regular lawmakers and the ultra-nationalists was something Nishimura spotted when he first arrived in Japan. “At that time I thought [the ultra-nationalists] flew in the face of everything I assumed Japan to be, but I quickly learned that politicians use the same method to harangue the public.” Food for thought indeed.