Naomi Kawase has been tagged as “Japan’s leading woman director” since her first feature film, “Moe no Suzaku (Suzaku),” won the Camera d’Or prize at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.
Given the scarcity of contenders until recently, this was a somewhat dubious distinction, but Kawase has long since risen above it; her films, including the autobiographical documentaries she made before “Suzaku,” and the features “Hotaru (Firefly)” (2000) and “Shara Soju (Shara)” (2003), have been screened both theatrically in Japan and internationally at dozens of festivals, while winning many critical plaudits and awards. The biggest is the 2007 Cannes Grand Prix — the festival’s second prize, given for her new film “Mogari no Mori (The Mourning Forest).”
Kawase, however, has never achieved or sought the sort of high international profile of a Takeshi Kitano or Takashi Miike. Far from being a celebrity in Japan, she has lived most of the last decade out of the spotlight. Media attention — even in Japan — accordingly focused elsewhere during this year’s Cannes festival, where “Mogari no Mori” was one of 22 films in the competition. Kitano got much ink for a 3-minute short he made for a compilation film celebrating the fest’s 60th anniversary, as did fellow comic megastar Hitoshi Matsumoto for his debut feature “Dai Nipponjin,” which was screened in the Directors Fortnight section.
And in a crowded competition field that included films by Quentin Tarantino, Gus Van Sant, Wong Kar-wai, David Fincher and Joel and Ethan Coen, Kawase was the darkest of dark horses, barely mentioned by the Western media in the reams of speculation about potential prize winners. (The reactions to her win by some of the same foreign journos and critics who had ignored her was less than gracious, with Manohla Dargis of the New York Times calling her victory a “head scratcher” and London-based Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian failing to mention her film at all in his post-Cannes wrap story.)
However, Kawase is hardly a self- effacing type, despite her dedication to the art, rather than the commerce, of film. Asked before the announcement about her chances for another Cannes prize, she said she rather fancied them since her film was screening late and would thus stand out in the judges’ minds. Spoken like a true veteran of the festival circuit. At the awards ceremony, when “Mogari no Mori” was announced the winner of the Grand Prix, Kawase looked pleased enough, but shed not a tear as she accepted the trophy, saying she was “happy now that I kept making films.”
And she has been making them for a long time, starting in 1988 while a student at Visual Arts College of Osaka. In the beginning, she shot only documentaries — 16 altogether prior to the making of “Moe no Suzaku.” But instead of the social issues that occupied a previous generation of Japanese documentarians, Kawase focused on herself and her immediate family. In “Ni Tsutsumarete (Embracing)” (1993), she filmed her search for her father, who left home when she was a child. In “Katatsumori” (1995) she examined her affectionate, if testy relationship with her grandmother, who had raised her.
For “Moe no Suzaku,” a drama about the dissolution of a family in rural Nara Prefecture, Kawase used documentary-inspired methods, such as casting amateurs for all but the role of the father — played by veteran Jun Kunimura — and having her staff and cast live in the farmhouse that was the set for the family’s home for months prior to the start of screening, while raising crops in the adjacent field.
In the film, there were few signs of late- 20th-century Japan — no computers, no manga. There was also none of the melodramatics so common in Japanese commercial films. Instead of wordy explanations and emotional displays, Kawase produced images that spoke of the power and mystery of nature, the depths of her family’s isolation — from each other as well as the world outside.
She was, in fact, going against the current of not only the industry but her directorial generation, which had been thoroughly immersed in pop culture as children and celebrated it in their films. Kawase, as she explained to this writer in a 1998 interview, had come to filmmaking “by a different route.” Instead of devouring manga, anime and movies, she had spent much of her childhood exploring the fields, woods and rivers of her native Nara. “I’m more like the filmmakers of 60 years ago — I make films based on what I’ve actually seen and felt in my life — the sadness and happiness and all the rest — in my own way,” she explained.
Following this breakthrough, Kawase married the producer of “Moe no Suzaku,” Takanori Sento, and took his last name, a decision that earned her the scorn of certain feminists. (“I just ignore them,” she said.) The marriage, however, ended in 2001, and Kawase resumed the professional use of her maiden name. She indirectly depicted this process in “Hotaru”, a drama about a stormy relationship between a depressed exotic dancer (Yuko Nakamura) and a moody, brawny potter (Toshiya Nagasawa). Filled with eroticism and emotionality — in one memorable scene, the heroine destroyed the entire contents of her apartment in a rage — “Hotaru” was Kawase’s attempt to win a wider audience, but it did only indifferent business.
For her next feature, “Shara Soju,” Kawase knocked on many doors before finding backing from a consortium that included the Nikkatsu studio, broadcaster Yomiuri Telecasting, production company Realproducts and her alma mater, Visual Arts College of Osaka. One problem: Kawase preferred to begin with a brief treatment, then work long hours with actors to develop their characters — an approach that reflected her documentary background but didn’t ease the minds of worried investors more used to dealing with marketable (and finished) scripts.
A drama about a troubled teenage boy (Kahei Fukunaga) trying to cope with the disappearance and death of his twin brother five years earlier, with the help of a pretty childhood friend (Yuka Hyodo), “Shara Soju” was screened in competition at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. Again set in Nara, the film returned to some of Kawase’s favorite themes, including the impact of loss, the persistence of love and the relationship between humanity and the natural world. In addition to her now familiar lyricism, the film had a fresh sensual power, expressed in a propulsive festival dance sequence. In another new twist, Kawase played a heavily pregnant women with a brave devotion to realism, ending with an astonishingly vivid birth scene. This unusual casting came from, not ego, but necessity: the actress scheduled to play the role had to cancel at the last minute, leaving Kawase in the lurch.
While making fiction films, Kawase kept in touch with her documentary roots, filming “Kya ka ra ba a (Sky, Wind, Fire, Water, Earth)” (2001), in which she revisited her relationship with her father; “Tsuioku no Tansu (Letter from a Cherry Blossom)” (2003) that recorded the last days of film critic and photographer Kazuo Nishii, a longtime Kawase friend; and “Tarachime” (2006), where she shot fraught final meetings with her 90-year-old grandmother, who died shortly after filming was completed.
With her triumph at Cannes, Kawase is about to begin a new stage in her career. Remarried, with a child of her own, and approaching the age of 40, she is no longer the rising young hope but has fully flowered as a woman, mother and filmmaker. In other words, there’s plenty of material for the decade to come.
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