A Japanese Grand Prix

by Brett Bull

The red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival could be graced by more Japanese if the government and the film industry were to cooperate in a more substantiative way, suggests director Naomi Kawase, this year’s winner of the Grand Prix for her film “Mogari no Mori (The Mourning Forest).”

“What I really desire, not only for myself but for the entire Japanese film industry,” Kawase told a press luncheon last week, “is to have some kind of system in place where it is fairly easy to ensure that Japanese films are distributed abroad in a very systematic way.”

Though “The Mourning Forest” was aided in production and subtitling costs by the government-run Agency for Cultural Affairs, whose annual film budget is 2.2 billion, Kawase would like to see more than just money.

Two weeks ago Kawase paid a visit to Akira Amari, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to explain that an open dialogue between filmmakers and bureaucrats should be established.

“I took the opportunity,” said the 38-year-old, “to ask the minister to create an environment where films such as mine can be shown on a regular basis. What I am also searching for is a place where people in the filmmaking business can talk, very openly, to people in government about what can be done and what kind of cooperation can be given.”

Time was, studios in Japan had many directors on staff capable of releasing several films annually. Today, most directors are limited to making one film every few years, a situation which, Kawase said, results in “tremendous pressure to make each a huge success.”

Up until now, government activity with regards to film promotion has been limited, and what measures have been implemented have been geared toward generating funding. But some developments are afoot.

Between Sept. 19 and Oct. 28 the Japan International Contents Festival, sponsored by METI, will promote a series of animation, computer graphics, music and film events (including the Tokyo International Film Festival) in an effort to bring international attention to Japan’s media industries.

Kawase, whose works are often dark and introspective, admits that her films are a tough sell to a wide audience. “The Mourning Forest” is a somber story of grief that follows a female caregiver and an elderly widower suffering from Alzheimer’s disease as they search for his wife’s grave. Her 2006 autobiographical film, “Tarachime,” includes scenes showing the birth of her son Mitsuki.

“If you compare my films to novels,” she said, “I think my films fall under the category of serious literature. People who come to see my films have come to the theater with hopes of being drawn into the film. They want to really study every aspect of the film, to experience the film to the very marrow of their bones. That is demanding a lot of the viewer.”

Kawase conceded that while it is true that things appear to be improving on the domestic front, as evidenced by local productions last year taking more at the box office than imports for the first time since 1985, independent films are still going unnoticed, with the overall success being generally limited to the animation and horror genres and features based on television dramas. (Kawase’s own company, Kumie, will be distributing “The Mourning Forest” on a mere 28 screens in Japan.)

While the attention now being given to the film will assist her personally in raising funds for her next project, Kawase, whose debut, “Moe no Suzaku,” won the Camera d’Or prize at Cannes in 1997, said that the importance of the international stage should not be overlooked.

The time, she says, is now to keep Japanese cinema in the spotlight.

“Let’s take advantage of this opportunity,” she said of her win.