Where to begin with Naomi Kawase

As her Cannes prize-winning drama The Mourning Forest arrives to stream on BFI Player, we pick a beginner’s path through the rhapsodic cinema of Naomi Kawase, Japan’s most famous female director.

The Mourning Forest (2007)

Why this might not seem so easy

The youngest Cannes Camera d’Or winner at 28 with her debut feature Suzaku (1997), Naomi Kawase maintains the highest international profile among the new wave of Japanese female directors who arrived in her wake. Yet she has always operated to one side of Japan’s mainstream, basing herself in her native prefecture of Nara, where her earliest films were shot, rather than in Tokyo where the studios are. Much of her work is financed internationally and intended for the festival circuit rather than domestic cinema screens. 

Naomi Kawase during filming of Sweet Bean (2015)

She began her career with a series of experimental documentaries exploring her own familial trauma. 1992’s Embracing saw her searching for the birth father who abandoned her, while in 1994’s Katatsumori she explores her sometimes difficult relationship with the great-aunt who raised her after her parents’ divorce. 

Kawase has described her narrative features as “fiction with a documentarian’s gaze”, and her early dramatic features are notably naturalistic, often starring non-professional actors and set in the picturesque countryside where she lives. Although her films have won many prestigious awards and much acclaim around the world, they’ve also sometimes received criticism for the poetic obscurity of her filmmaking, which often rejects narrative clarity for the sensual, becoming caught up in the wonder of the natural world. 

The best place to start – Sweet Bean

Undoubtedly Kawase’s most accessible work, Sweet Bean (2015) is among the few of her films to be adapted from a novel rather than based on her own original script, and it’s situated not in leafy Nara but under the cherry blossoms of suburban Tokyo. It also marks the beginning of a marked shift away from the stark naturalism of her early career towards a more recognisably mainstream sensibility, which has continued into her most recent work. Nevertheless it provides an essential intro to Kawase’s key themes: transience, family, tradition and the beauty of nature. 

Sweet Bean (2015)

The sweet bean of the title refers to the red bean filling of the dorayaki, a traditional Japanese confection consisting of two American-style pancakes with jam in the middle. In the film, dejected ex-con Sentaro runs a small shop selling them despite, as we find out, not having a sweet tooth. His sense of joy and possibility is gradually reawakened after getting to know Tokue, an old woman who passes on her knowledge of how to make them perfectly, a skill which takes time, effort and patience, and boils down to the ability to listen to and be in touch with nature and the present moment.

Meanwhile, a lonely high-school girl learns to embrace her natural freedoms after hearing of the various ways in which the older woman’s life was and continues to be limited by the “ignorance of the world”. A typically Kawasean take on the Japanese concept of mono no aware (the pathos of things), Sweet Bean is uncharacteristically direct in its message but as such provides the perfect first taste of her work.

What to watch next

After indulging in Sweet Bean you’ll be suitably primed to take a look back at Kawase’s early Nara trilogy, beginning with that prize-winning debut feature Suzaku, which depicts the gradual fracturing of a rural family in a modernising world. Kawase herself stars in her second dramatic feature, Shara (2003), which again focuses on familial disruption, as a young man and his parents try to come to terms with the disappearance of a twin brother while preparing for a festival. The rain-drenched finale kickstarts something of a recurrent motif in Kawase’s work, as the family finds release through the performance of traditional dance. 

Still the Water (2014)

Her Cannes Grand Prix winner The Mourning Forest (2007) continues the study in grief and reunites Kawase with Suzaku star Machiko Ono as she accompanies an old man with dementia through a woodland odyssey in an attempt to accommodate loss.

Like Shara, Still the Water (2014), described by Kawase as her “masterpiece”, also features scenes of traditional dance, though this time the setting is the tropical vistas of Japan’s island culture. Here, a young man transplanted from Tokyo struggles with the business of living while his would-be-girlfriend witnesses the slow death of her shamaness mother from terminal illness. 

The more accessible Radiance (2017) sees Kawase reteam with Sweet Bean’s Masatoshi Nagase for a meditation on the romance of cinema. It centres on the business of creating audio narration for the visually impaired, with a photographer who is losing his sight sparring with a young woman charged with translating the visual quality of film into text.

Where not to start

Kawase’s work has often proved divisive, and 2018’s Vision did little to persuade her detractors. Despite the tantalising prospect of Juliette Binoche as a Frenchwoman in Japan on a quest to find a rare herb with the help of Masatoshi Nagase’s gruff woodsman, it leans heavily into the new age philosophies and obscure poetics that have alienated some critics. 

Hanezu (2011)

The earlier, Bangkok-set Nanayomachi (2008) shares some of the same ideas, including the inefficacy of verbal communication as a Japanese woman gets caught up in a family dispute alongside a French émigré, who in turn is in Thailand on a quest for spiritual fulfilment while learning the art of massage. Like Vision, it tends towards mystification, and has been seen as ham-fisted in its attempt to deal with the weightier themes of history and imperialism. 

2011’s Hanezu is also among the least accessible of her works, despite its beautiful cinematography. Another one that’s adapted from a novel rather than based on an original Kawase script, it’s a poetic tale of familial legacy and frustrated romance in which a young woman lives with one man but falls in love with another, while the sad history of a similar failed affair thwarted by war and oppressive social codes seems to overshadow them. 

Kawase’s visual artistry and ability to capture the beauty of nature is never in question, however, and even in her weaker and more inscrutable films, there’s a rigorous emotional authenticity.

  • The Mourning Forest will be available on BFI Player from 18 September