Hello there, and welcome to another issue of Your Japanese Film Insight. One thing I’ve always wished to do with this column is highlight creatives and works from throughout the history and the present of cinema in Japan and bring them to the attention of as wide an audience as possible. However, in this endeavor, I’ve failed to highlight many female directors, although this is also, unfortunately, a matter of circumstance as well as being a blind spot.
I’ve covered the work of Mika Ninagawa in this column before, as not only are her movies entertaining and engaging, but her use of color and staging that come about from her experience with photography is stunning to behold. The issue is that she is a rare female voice when we discuss the forefront of Japanese cinema, with very few female creators helming the biggest projects in Japan today.
In an unequal society, the film industry suffers from the lack of prominent female directors, and it’s an important discussion that the Tokyo International Film Festival gender equity pledge only barely begins to rectify. Gender inequality in film is a large topic for another time, and while it’s definitely important, I want to center today’s discussion on Japan’s most prominent active female director.
This week, let’s discuss humanity, family and grief in the filmography of Naomi Kawase.
Family Where Family Doesn’t Exist
Naomi Kawase has dabbled in creating both documentary and fictional films throughout her three-decade career. Indeed, these can in some ways be conflated as one and the same, as she heavily employs documentarian filmmaking techniques in her fictional stories. While there is overlap and she has continued to create some documentary works in her more recent career, you can still mostly split her work between her early personal documentary films and her later fictional stories.
Understanding these early documentary films can be useful when it comes to understanding Naomi Kawase’s wider career. She was raised in rural Nara prefecture only by her grandmother from a very young age. Her birth parents had separated when she was young, and this resulted in her adoption and living without them.
This is being brought up because it’s important to understanding her early career in personal documentary filmmaking and the theming of many of her early works. Following her graduation from Osaka Visual Arts in 1989, Naomi Kawase’s early documentaries are home video-style works centered on her own family and sense of place concerning what she sees as abandonment from her parents and the love shown to her by her grandmother.
Naomi Kawase’s first film, the 1992 documentary Embracing, is a home video diary of her search for the father who abandoned her, centering on this and the relationship she built with her grandmother in his absence. While rough, the film mixes imagery from her home life and the area she lives in to accompany voiceover of her journey, culminating in a phone call with her father that reconnects them after many years.
Mixed in with this is a frank exploration of her fears of abandonment and questions on whether she should even be searching for her parents. It’s a personal exploration of trauma that permeates throughout this decade of her career.
Katatsumori, for example, is another home video documentary about her close relationship with her grand-aunt, this time solely focused on their relationship. Of all her early home video documentaries, this is arguably the most personal and one of the most interesting uses of the handheld home video format. This is a film about intimate human connections and the ways that loss can strengthen the love with those who are around in ways that are almost too difficult to put into words.
Home movies are intimate by design. They’re often candid, poorly shot, shaky, and rarely for the public eye. They’re the closest thing a person can have to placing a camera in their eye and capturing their worldview, and brims with emotion and intimacy that’s impossible to artificially reproduce. With the closeness of the camera centered right on her grandmother, you get to see the wrinkles on her face, the grin that comes not from discomfort at the intimacy but the joy that this mindless moment of time can be spent with the one person she cares for above all else.
With Katatsumori, Naomi Kawase captures the unspoken love of a family bond that can never be broken. And then the perspective shifts. With the grandmother in control, the camera is intensely centered on Kawase herself, and it becomes difficult to know where the line between the two of them starts and ends, as the film merges the consciousness of both women into a single existence. It’s a new being that is created by bringing these perspectives together, separate from time and reality itself and timeless in nature. They are both intimately interconnected and scared of losing the one thing that keeps them together.
It’s beautiful, but is tinged with love and loss in equal respects, acts as an ode to the eternal moment that, too, must eventually end. As much as we fear it, and as much as we can keep the unreliable narrator of memory close as we look back on those we love, eventually we will be separated, whether in life or death. And that’s terrifying.
That’s exactly what this documentary captures and what each tries to explore, both through love, curiosity, and the trauma of abandonment.
As much as these films are soaked with love, especially in the case of Katatsumori, these are tinged with painful memories and a confused sense of place. With Sky, Wind, Fire, Water, Earth about her reconnected father’s sudden death, understanding grief in the context of someone who abandoned you and was never close to, despite blood making them your closest relatives of all. It’s a disorientated film in both production and tone, tied to Kawase’s own confusion. This is similarly found in her later movies with her grandmother, including one made after her loss, Trace in 2012.
It’s from watching these that you gain a greater understanding and appreciation for what Naomi Kawase was attempting to recreate with her fictional stories, and why she chose to create them in the first place. Except, rather than centering the camera on herself to use her own experiences to talk about humanity, human connection, grief and love, the camera is pointing externally at the world, finding the small moments in life and drifting through them like a spring breeze, or a wave crashing on the golden sands of a beach.
This is where nature comes into the picture, a recurring motif found in her documentaries and becomes a metaphor through which all her stories are told in her fictional tales. Although I find it to be the weakest of her non-documentary productions, her debut feature film, Suzuka, does a good job of capturing this. With Suzuka, she became the then-youngest director ever to win the Camera d’Or for the best first feature at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997.
This is a movie far more interested in capturing a mood than it is telling any sort of expansive story. Tonally this movie is wonderful, emboldened by its mix of still, observational camera, and documentary-like filmmaking as we follow this ‘family drama without the drama’ in a remote Japanese village, albeit still host to a heartbreaking turn of events. Nature and the change in the environment over time are used to capture this idea of what is lost, even if it feels distant and disengaging as a movie.
This was something she only improved upon over time, as she better learned to use nature in place of the self to explore her understandings of family connections. It was something refined up until it reached a peak in three of her most well-known films: The Mourning Forest, Still the Water, and Sweet Bean.
The Mourning Forest uses nature as a tool to unlock grief and acceptance in a tale focused on a caregiver at a remote care home who ends up stranded with a resident who still grieves for the loss of his wife 33 years ago. One quote spoken on multiple occasions that permeate throughout the film is that ‘there are no set rules, you know’, which can be applied textually within the film to the caregiver’s work as much as it can to the film’s wider focus on grief.
Grief is difficult to comprehend, comes in waves, and never truly leaves you after you’ve been left behind and have to process these emotions for yourself. This is the primary idea that resonates from the film’s opening: wordless shots of humanity surviving alongside nature, gathering food and chopping trees. They’re images of survival and life that feel real and detached from the film itself, which helps to divorce the mind from the idea they’re sat watching a movie. It’s arguably the best example of the director’s use of nature in film, as humanity and nature represent the cycle of life where death is the thing that makes life worth living.
Sweet Bean is a more conventional human drama, but it also exists as a film where the slow cooking of the beans to make red bean paste for dorayaki, the sakura tree’s blossom, the smiling customers, and the cruelty of some at the expense of others shines a light on prejudice and people. In reality, rather than tear each other apart, finding fulfillment in life should be a primary goal, without living artificially.
Naomi Kawase’s filmography can best be surmised as an attempt to explore humanity through the lens of nature and trauma. The balance between life and death and humanity’s often-fraught relationship with nature is used as a metaphor for everyday human connections. Often mundane, the world has its pockets of pure beauty that one can soak in for years and still find ways to appreciate it in new ways. At the same time, this changes how we see the world around us, just as our relationships with the self and others are never static and always tinged with our memories of the past and fears for the future.
Going forward, after the success of her most recent film, True Mothers, the director will only continue to make films for years to come. Despite not being nominated after being selected as Japan’s representative for the International Feature Film Award at this year’s Oscars, the fact it was chosen shows the level of respect the director commands within Japan. Provided the Olympics go ahead later this year, Naomi Kawase has been chosen to produce the official film of the event. Considering her ability to capture the personal and human, I can’t think of a better filmmaker for the task, particularly considering her humanist style is arguably better-suited to an event defined as much by the human tragedy away from the event than she would a more standard sports event.
Whatever comes next for Naomi Kawase, her place as the most prominent Japanese female director, willing to capture unique perspectives on Japan today while exploring themes she feels most connected to, makes her a director well worth checking out.
Film Flashback: Still the Water (2つ目の窓, Naomi Kawase, 2014)
Were I to pick Naomi Kawase’s most accessible feature film, I would be spending the remainder of this article highlighting Sweet Bean. By being adapted from a novel and taking a more conventional filmmaking approach, it’s easier to comprehend while still retaining the themes present throughout her filmography. However, the exploration of intimacy at the precipice of life and death found in Still the Water is a film that I find impossible to overlook.
Still the Water, in comparison to Sweet Bean, is arguably Kawase’s rawest film, while also being one of her most inaccessible. The film is filled with death without being strictly about the topic itself. It starts with Kaito finding a dead body on the beach and the mystery that surrounds the identity of this floating corpse with a dragon tattoo on its back, but this isn’t a film overly focused on finding out the identity of this body and more on how this reflects on the 15-year-old’s life as he comes of age.
Indeed, rather than being about death, this is a celebration of life and a moment in time, one within which we as an audience are simply passing through as opposed to experiencing it alongside these characters. With both the body’s discovery at the precipice of the known world of soil and sand, this is a film that stands on the edge of life and death and celebrates life precisely because of its consistent fight against the natural specter of death.
What makes Still the Water so satisfying within Naomi Kawase’s body of work is the way it eloquently captures the mundanity and the unmissable with equal sincerity. The film gives equal breathing rooms to moments of mundanity as it does to the moment we witness Kyoko’s mother take her final breath in the jovial company of those that love her most. While it could be easy to criticize such a decision, it’s done because life is a painful yet natural occurrence better celebrated by more heavily featuring the dancing of her family than focusing on the act of passing itself.
This is why this film so unique: even as her other films tackle these same ideas, this movie is experiential in its approach. We have childlike rebellion in our two young protagonists swimming despite a public ban that is treated with just as much meaning as their fears and concerns they share after close encounters with death. It’s also a sensual film, as their coming of age comes with the character’s first interest in sex and the naked touch of another’s body.
A refinement of Kawase’s documentarian camera allows us to witness the grief and emotions of these two young children processing new experiences and understanding the treasures and tragedy of life through not just acting but the camera itself. Still, observations are used to understand the shifting mental state of these young minds in a confusing situation.
As I noted before, this is not the most accessible film. The film has a story, for sure, but the story becomes secondary to an often wordless discussion of the body’s place in nature and the circle of life and the fear of letting another being into that space despite the pain it’ll bring one or both of you when that all falls apart. Yet Naomi Kawase doesn’t paint this as something we should fear, and it’s rather magnificent for that.
Become one with the powerful energy of a wave is another way of finding harmony within nature and the greater meaning of life beyond your own. It’s a journey laden with fear. But maybe that’s not something we should fear as much as we do.
Still the Water is available to stream in the UK through MUBI
That brings us to the end of the latest ‘Your Japanese Film Insight’. For a complete list of films recommended as part of this column, you can find them compiled together in a list, with links to their respective articles, over on Letterboxd.
Are there any films you want to see discussed in the future? Contact me directly on Twitter @socialanigirl !