In partnership with JNTO

Japanese cinema is typically viewed as a masculine domain. Until the 1980s, the studio system’s structure presented a formidable barrier for women hoping to enter the industry in a creative capacity. Barring Japan’s first woman director, Sakane Tazuko, who made a single feature in 1936, the long-lost Hatsu sugata, the few who chalked up a directing credit generally hailed from an acting background.

Only in the past decade have Japanese women filmmakers made real headway. Their swelling ranks and the acclaim, both domestic and international, for such names as Nishikawa Miwa (Dear Doctor, 2009; Dreams for Sale, 2012), Tanada Yuki (Moon & Cherry, 2004; The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky, 2012), Ogigami Naoko (Kamome Diner, 2006) and Yokohama Satoko (Bare Essence of Life, 2009) suggest an industry keen to redress past imbalances.

The trailblazer for this new wave, although also an artist with a distinctively individual voice and agenda, has been Kawase Naomi. While recent female directors have downplayed gender’s bearing on their work, Kawase has kept it at the forefront, with the naturalistic celebrations of the universality of womanhood of her dramatic features balanced by deeply personal documentary works in which she has regularly turned the camera on herself and her family.

Though she remains overlooked in English-language territories, Kawase has been a fixture at Cannes since her 1997 Caméra d’Or win, aged 27, for her feature debut Suzaku (1997), a portrait of family life in a remote village community beset by mass depopulation due to the decline of its traditional cedar-logging industry. Ten years later, she received the Grand Prix for The Mourning Forest (2007), about the developing bond between a retirement home careworker and one of her wards. This was followed by the Carrosse d’Or lifetime achievement award in 2009, the same year that another of her films, Nanayo (2008), in which a young woman embarks on a voyage of self-discovery while vacationing in Thailand, cropped up in the Cannes market. Her latest feature, Still the Water (2014), a coming-of-age romance set on a subtropical Japanese island, played in Competition this year, as did Hanezu in 2011, a contemporary adaptation of a Bandô Masako novel shot on 16mm.

The Mourning Forest (2007)

Kawase’s recurring presence at Cannes indicates her stature within a certain transnational festival subculture. Since 1999, there have been retrospectives in Italy, Switzerland and France; European co-productions within her oeuvre include The Mourning Forest and Still the Water, and stretch back to Kya Ka Ra Ba A (2001), a documentary self-portrait chronicling her grieving process after the death of her father.

Yet in Japan, Kawase remains marginal, both critically and commercially. Still based in the ancient capital of Nara, where she was born, far from the filmmaking hub of Tokyo, her resolutely independent stance has rendered her very much an outsider in the industry. The mountainous Nara prefecture is an enduring presence in much of her work, and Suzaku represented a real breath of fresh air when it first appeared.

With majestic landscapes surrounding a real-life village, the film unfolds in two periods, separated by a 15-year gap during which a proposed railway tunnel project that might have provided an economic boost to the area fails to materialise. This conspicuous absence might be viewed as a metaphor for the Japanese film industry of this period. With the studio system struggling during the 1980s and domestic box-offce takings declining after the bubble, for much of the 90s Japanese cinema’s heyday seemed far behind it.

An outsider in Tokyo, Kawase focuses on family life and rural traditions, often putting her own emotions or body before the lens.

Then suddenly, in 1997, Japan was back on the map, with Imamura Shôhei’s (shared) Palme d’Or at Cannes for the The Eel and Kitano Takeshi’s Golden Lion at Venice for Hana-bi. Suô Masayuki’s Shall We Dance? unexpectedly became America’s top-grossing Asian film ever, while Miyazaki Hayao’s Princess Mononoke became Japan’s highest-grossing domestic release. All this and Suzaku’s surprise Cannes triumph. For the first time in years, people began talking about possible futures for the industry, and more feminine ones at that.

Kawase’s earliest filmmaking hints at how remarkable her arrival as an internationally-feted auteur seemed to local audiences, and at what still distinguishes her work: lowkey depictions of everyday family life and rural traditions with a distinctive feminine subjectivity, steeped in Buddhist themes of cycles of regeneration and rebirth.

Born in 1969, Kawase began making 8mm films at the Osaka School of Visual Arts (then the School of Photography), graduating in 1989. Rather than cinephilia, it was her discovery of the camera as a tool for articulating thoughts and feelings and connecting with the world that informed her earliest work, as their titles – The Concretisation of These Things Flying Around Me (1988) and I Focus on That which Interests Me (1988) – amply spell out. On the other hand, works like Papa’s Ice Cream (1988) and My Solo Family (1989) point towards the more autobiographical dimension of her oeuvre, evoking a difficult childhood in which she was abandoned by her parents and raised by a great aunt.

This hapless upbringing informs Embracing (1992), an emotional journey back into the mists of Kawase’s childhood that ends with her making phone contact with her estranged father, and Katatsumori (1994), a touching portrait of the elderly relative who took her in. The two films sit between personal diary and experimental cinema, almost painfully candid, stylistically guileless, surprisingly elegant. Vivid invocations of the everyday as fltered through their maker’s subjective experiences, they unfurl like assembled fragments of home movies, hypnotic collages of mundane suburban landscapes, trees and other organic forms, simple household objects and interiors: inanimate objects brought to life by the animating force of the camera, inscribed in natural light in the raw grainy texture of 8mm stock and counterpointed by a sparing use of non-diegetic sound. (Katatsumori was later blown up to 16mm for theatrical exhibition.)

“I see myself as some sort of axis connecting these images and sounds,” Kawase has said. She captures the timeless spirit of place through the relationship between landscapes and the communities that live and work within them. The Weald (1997), for instance, which saw her returning to the area where Suzaku was filmed to document the ageing community still making their livings as loggers, makes evocative use of the textures of 8mm, 16mm and video. With her early 8mm works, Kawase found herself a major player in the amateur jishu eiga (‘self-produced film’) scene that emerged during the 1980s.

After Embracing won a FIPRESCI Prize Special Mention and Katatsumori won the New Asian Currents Award of Excellence at Yamagata in 1995, she collaborated with another rising star of independent Japanese art cinema, Koreeda Hirokazu, making a series of 8mm filmed correspondences that were exhibited as This World (1996). The prizes also led to her meeting Sentô Takenori, her future husband and producer of the 35mm work with which her international career would be launched, Suzaku.

The pressure Kawase faced to be seen not only as an ambassador for Japan but also for Japanese women was compounded by her engagement and marriage to Sentô in 1997. She was the subject of intense media attention in Japan, with less interest shown in the film than its maker. Kawase felt like “a panda in a zoo”, unable to focus on future projects. Then came the inevitable backlash as local critics began to question what the French saw in Kawase’s impressionistic depictions of quotidian life. Work and marriage proved incompatible for a maverick producer based in Tokyo and the promising filmmaker whose heart belonged in Nara, and was keen not to be seen as just another protégée.

Hotaru (2000)

The break-up that led to their divorce in March 2000 occurred during the production of a pivotal work in Kawase’s filmography, fuelling much of its content. Beautifully shot in the villages and farmlands of Nara over a year and, like Suzaku, improvised by a mostly nonprofessional cast, Hotaru (2000), meaning ‘firefly’, depicts the intense, turbulent relationship of two emotionally scarred people, a striptease artiste abandoned by her mother as a child and a taciturn yet sensitive artisan working with traditional ceramics, who has his own emotional skeletons. Running at 164 minutes, the film premiered at Rotterdam but received a modest release in Japan. Sentô’s production company folded in November 2001 after a volley of high-profle flops, highlighting the absence of a domestic market for the meditative productions favoured by European festivals.

Shara (2003)

Kawase’s willingness to place herself or an obvious stand-in at the centre of her films, and the nakedness with which she has used her art to work through her own obsessions, go against the grain with local audiences. Her 2003 drama Shara, in which she plays the hard-working pregnant mother of a family suffering from a son’s disappearance, ends on an upbeat note; soon after, Kawase gave birth to her frst child. She went further in Tarachime (2006), a 43-minute documentary record of her pregnancy culminating in the on-camera birth of her second son. Less palatable was Letter from a Yellow Cherry Blossom (2002), an account of the dying days of photography critic Nishii Kazuo, in which her presence was rather more imposing than her ostensible subject.

Some argue the pictures Kawase presents to the world are mannered and self-consciously exotic – more Japonesque than Japanese. But they can be beautiful and represent a soft-spoken alternative voice in a national industry that has too often traded on bombast and eccentricity. And, crucially, it is this international profile that has laid the groundwork for many young independent flmmakers, especially female ones, to follow.

Japan National Tourism Organization

About Japan National Tourism Organization

Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) promotes travel to, in and around the country. Check out the JNTO site for bucket list itineraries, the ‘old normal’, travel on a budget and endless ways to escape into rural Japan.

Visit and plan your adventure today.

Five contemporary Japanese films to watch on BFI Player

BFI Player has teamed up with the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) to bring you some of the best of Japanese cinema, and a serious dose of wanderlust. These five gems offer a spectrum of images of rural Japan, from the mountain vistas of Yamagata to the tropical beaches of Okinawa.

Early Summer

Ozu Yasujirō, 1951

Location: Kamakura

Early Summer (1951)

Calm beaches form the backdrop for an intergenerational family drama where tradition meets modernity. 

A Scene at the Sea

Kitano Takeshi, 1991

Location: Fujisawa

A deaf couple stumble across a discarded surfboard and dream of surfing stardom.


Takita Jojiro, 2008

Location: Yamagata

A professional cellist loses his job and returns to his rural family home amidst the mountains of Yamagata.

I Wish

Koreeda Hirokazu, 2011

Location: Kyushu

Two young brothers, living separately, believe that a new bullet train will help grant their wish for family reunification.

Still the Water

Kawase Naomi, 2014

Location: Okinawa

On the island of Amami a young couple grow up, fall in love, and contemplate their futures. 

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