Keeping it real: Naomi Kawase on filmmaking

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Naomi Kawase has always been an outlier in the Japanese film world, if a very successful one. Born and raised in Nara Prefecture, the site of Japan’s ancient capital, she started making documentaries while a student at the Osaka School of Photography in the late 1980s, taking as subjects her natural surroundings and immediate family, particularly the great-aunt who had raised her following the break-up of her parents’ marriage.

In 1997 Kawase’s first fiction feature, “Suzaku” (“Moe no Suzaku”), won the Camera d’Or prize for best new director at the Cannes Film Festival. This film about the disintegration of a family in rural Nara was part of a new wave that brought Japanese cinema to the renewed attention of the world after the Golden Age of the 1950s and ’60s. But unlike such new-wave directors as Takeshi Kitano, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Hirokazu Koreeda, Kawase kept her focus almost exclusively on the personal, local and natural/spiritual, while rejecting the lure of genre and the influence of pop culture.

This independent stance did not hurt her with Cannes: Her 2007 “The Mourning Forest” (“Mogari no Mori”) won the Cannes Grand Prix and she has long been a frequent presence at the festival, including a stint on the 2013 main competition jury.

Now in mid-career, when Japanese directors of her stature are typically rushing from one project to the next, Kawase has decided to give back, most recently by conducting a master class on June 10 at the Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia in Tokyo (SSFF&A). Appearing on stage at the LaForet Harajuku department store, Kawase screened clips from her early documentary work and a new short, “Lies” (“Uso”), while promoting the Nara International Film Festival (NIFF), whose fourth edition will unspool September 17-22. “For me, a film is a way to once again spend time with something I will never encounter again — it’s a kind of time machine,” she told the packed crowd.

To give young filmmakers a chance to construct their own cinematic time machines, Kawase will conduct a workshop on September 16 and 17 at this year’s NIFF. The title: “The Road to Cannes.”

Also, as an outgrowth of her stint as jury chairman for the Cinefondation and Short Films section at Cannes last year, Kawase has formed a partnership with the Cannes festival organization. Winners from NIFF’s NARA-wave section for student films will be submitted directly to the Cannes Cinefondation director. Award-winning films from Cinefondation, which presents student films from around the world, will screen at NIFF.

Sitting down with Kawase at the SSFF&A closing ceremony at Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu Kaikan, I asked her why she was taking on the teacher role.

“Life is short and my generation won’t be around that long,” she says, resplendent in the red floor-length gown she was wearing to the ceremony. “I want to convey my thoughts and feelings to the next generation. They’ll take them and pass them on again. That can continue for a thousand or 2,000 years.”

As a native of Nara, where traditional ceremonies from a millennium ago are still being performed, long-term thinking comes naturally.

“Nara’s history goes back 1,300 years,” she explains. “If you want something to continue for another 1,300 years, you have to thoroughly teach it to the next generation.”

But when Kawase first traveled her own road to Cannes, at age 27, she had no distinguished mentors guiding her way.

“Everyone thought it was unbelievable,” she says. “It wasn’t just me; the entire Japanese film industry couldn’t process it. Cannes was only for someone like (Akira) Kurosawa — and 50 years had passed since he’d been there. I was the first woman, the first Japanese from the younger generation.”

Since she and other new-wave directors first journeyed down the path to Cannes and other major festivals nearly two decades ago, much has changed, and not, she believes, all for the good: “The directors of the (new wave) generation are now around 50, but our successors haven’t appeared, at least ones who are Japanese.”

The problem, she feels, goes beyond individual talent — or the lack thereof — to general attitudes. “There is this thinking that you’re OK as long as you succeed in the Japanese industry, even if you never go abroad,” she says. “That may keep the Japanese economy rolling, but internationally our profile isn’t so high.”

Kawase is doing her bit to raise that profile, such as by producing six short films in collaboration with the hugely successful band Exile and SSFF&A founder Tetsuya Bessho. “We may generate some new possibilities,” she says.

But it’s not always easy. The Nara festival had its city funding cut at the start of the new fiscal year and Kawase and other organizers have had to scramble to make up for the loss.

“More people have been supporting us, saying ‘how could that happen to something so worthwhile,” she explains. “So we have to step up our PR efforts and let more people know about us.”

Which she proceeds to do on the spot, in a mix of Japanese and English.

“When you think about it, Cannes is a resort, with an old town and the sea,” she says. “Nara is also a tourist spot. We’ve got many temples and shrines — a lot of interesting places. And you can walk everywhere — you don’t need a car. It’s a good experience for people to do that; you gain a lot of really important things. I’d like foreigners especially to know what a wonderful town it is. They know Kyoto, but they don’t know Nara. Nobody knows about Nara.”

But not for much longer, if the indefatigable Kawase has anything to do with it.