BY PHILIP BRASOR, CONTRIBUTING WRITER
The Netflix drama “Chief of Staff” (“Hosakan” in Japanese) is set in the chambers and offices of South Korea’s National Assembly, but it could have easily been set in the Japanese Diet.
Though the venality and opportunism on display is rather extreme — a function of the dramatic license Korean dramas are famous for — apart from the Korean public’s apparent rejection of political dynasties, Japanese viewers will likely notice some striking similarities between their country’s electoral and party circumstances and South Korea’s.
Almost all the elected officials in “Chief of Staff” are motivated only by ambition and the accretion of power. They care nothing about the needs and desires of the people they represent. The few who do are portrayed as ineffectual dreamers.
The main character, top aide to a former prosecutor whose sights are set on becoming South Korea’s law minister, justifies the backstabbing and glad-handing he performs on behalf of his repugnant boss by telling himself it’s the only way he can attain office, at which point he will start working for the people. As the drama so assertively, and often ridiculously, points out, the road to good intentions is paved with soul-destroying compromise.
The new Japanese film, “Pankeki o Dokumi Suru” (“Tasting the Pancake for Poison”), directed by Taketo Uchiyama, covers some of the same ground, except it’s a documentary. It focuses on one politician, current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and his approach to political expediency is shown through interviews with journalists, experts and even Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) colleagues, all interspersed with animated and staged live-action sequences that explain certain themes sardonically.
The film points out right away that neither Suga nor anyone directly connected to him (including businesses he patronizes) would talk to the filmmakers.
The overarching idea, which is similar to themes in “Chief of Staff,” is that Suga inherited his predecessor Shinzo Abe’s politics of resentment, which Suga was instrumental in actualizing as Abe’s chief cabinet secretary. Though Abe is the scion of a political dynasty, he harbors a deep antipathy toward elites as represented by the bureaucracy, especially the Foreign Affairs and Finance ministries, but also media organizations such as NHK and the Asahi Shimbun.
Having grown up on a farm, Suga is closer to the hoi polloi — though, as non-fiction writer Isao Mori explains, this image is manufactured — and so his anti-elite stance is considered authentic. Given the bureaucracy’s iron grip on government functions, the idea of elected officials seizing their power is appealing, but Abe and Suga’s approach is to concentrate this appropriated power in the Cabinet, where, ironically, it is controlled by bureaucrats, but bureaucrats appointed by Abe and Suga and thus beholden to them.
The most important bureaucrat in the Cabinet is Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita, who used to belong to the National Police Agency and is now in charge of personnel. He digs up and leaks dirt on Abe’s and Suga’s perceived enemies, such as former Education Minister Kihei Maekawa, who connected Abe to the Kake Gakuen scandal in 2017. The scheme to ruin Maekawa’s reputation could have been lifted wholly from “Chief of Staff.”
Manipulating the media has been a hallmark of Suga’s late career. The title of the documentary refers to an off-the-record pancake breakfast he invited the Prime Minister’s Office press club to attend last fall in lieu of an actual news conference to explain his decision to reject six nominees for the Science Council of Japan, allegedly as a means of punishing them for their political views. The reporters were in a bind: If they refused to attend on ethical grounds, they might have missed an important remark.
Consequently, the only media covering the Suga administration forthrightly are some weekly magazines and Akahata, the main organ of the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), which broke the story about how the annual taxpayer-sponsored cherry blossom-viewing get-together was used to entertain LDP supporters. Akahata’s role is unique in that it can investigate the government and then have JCP Diet members question the ruling party about things they uncovered. Other media then have an excuse to report these matters because they enter the public record, but under Suga, the media seems even more intimidated. When the JCP demanded he explain the sudden absence of ¥48 million from a secret government fund used for national emergencies, suspecting it had been used for the LDP presidential election, Suga refused, saying he didn’t have to disclose why the fund’s reserves had dropped so low since it is a secret, which is a classic Suga stonewall. Most media ignored the story.
At a news conference for the film at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on July 28, executive producer Mitsunobu Kawamura, who also produced the award-winning political feature film “The Journalist,” admitted that the movie is political. He wants young people to vote. The LDP benefits from low voter turnout, and the movie aims to illustrate how Abe and Suga mask their governing ineptitude with clever catch phrases and easy-to-understand policies that promise to save people money but rarely accomplish anything meaningful.
During a recent discussion on the web program Videonews.com, former bureaucrat and lifelong Abe critic Shigeaki Koga, who helped set up many of the interviews for the film, says the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed just how inept the government is. If anything, distractions such as the Go To Travel initiative and the diehard promotion of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics should prove to the public that Suga doesn’t know what he’s doing, but the media is still in thrall to him.
At the FCCJ news conference, Kawamura and Uchiyama described their movie as a satirical work that uses humor to attract viewers who think political documentaries are dry and boring. In that regard, it isn’t nearly as entertaining as “Chief of Staff,” which shows just how low politicians can go, but as all the episodes say at the beginning, everything that follows is fiction. “Pankeki o Dokumi Suru” invites the viewer to sample what it says is the truth about how low politicians can go.