Documentarists of Japan, #14: Kawase Naomi (2/2)

AG: I would like to talk more about Suzaku and the time after that, but I’d like to leave that for later and return to your early films once more. Again, this might just be my impression, but when I watch Papa’s Ice Cream or Like Happiness, I can’t help but sense the world of girl’s comic books (shojo manga). There’s the sensing of emotional meaning in everyday objects, the voice over relating the internal world, the lack of adult sexuality, and the feeling that everything possesses some kind of life. All those elements of shojo manga seem to be there. Did you read a lot of shojo manga?

KN: Yes (laughs).

AG: Who do you like?

KN: I still read them today, like Bessatsu Margaret, and things like that. Manga for young girls, like Tsumugi Taku and Kuramochi Fusako. I can’t think of the names off the top of my head, but I liked that kind of visual aesthetic.

AG: This may not just be an issue with shojo manga, but with an entire generation, but in films such as Like Happiness, a gentle, happy world rises to the surface, but behind it, there’s an empty domain, a fear that maybe everything is void. That also appears a lot in your works and is a frequent aspect of shojo manga.

KN: Oh, I have no idea (laughs). I’ve never taken the time to analyze shojo manga like that before. But since I did like them, that is probably the case. That’s right.

AG: People who view your works, especially the early ones, tend to emphasize this happy, gentle aspect, but there’s always the danger that that will fall apart. Do you take that issue up consciously?

KN: When I was in school, in junior high and in high school, I was always a really active kid, full of energy. I was like that in class too, the kind of kid who thrived on leadership roles, organizing our school festival and things like that. But actually, when I was little, my great aunt would take me off to preschool. I hated it when she left, so I would actually grab onto the school gate and cry. I really didn’t want to leave my familiar world, it was so scary. I didn’t want to leave the comfort of my own home; I was incredibly shy in front of strangers. From what people tell me, when I was a baby, when a man would try and touch me, I would burst into tears, and refuse to let him near me. I guess that was some kind of reaction to my father. For some reason I started to just shut out people like that. When I was little, my health was pretty unstable, and I would catch tonsillitis really easily, or come down with a fever. Then when I got to elementary school, or junior high school, I entered a world where you could be recognized for your schoolwork, or how good you were at PE or something. That’s where you can confirm the meaning of your existence, right? I had the feeling that if I acted like an active, healthy kid then I’d complete my existence. So when I got through junior high and high school, and got to film school, the world that I filmed came across as gentle and happy, whereas it was, in fact, a completely made-up world (laughs).

AG: That’s why it’s only “Like Happiness.”

KN: Only “like?” (laughs). But there is a kind of positive feeling you get from working through this feeling of discomfort by yourself, so you can move forward without always being shadowed by it. Instead of just resolving yourself to feeling ill at ease with the world, and bashing on with this feeling still nagging at you. To be honest , being positive is exhausting (laughs). It’s true that somewhere inside me, something insists on saying, “Isn’t everything made-up?” I wonder why that is. If I were to figure out why, I might quit making films altogether. Especially in my recent works, the subjects of life and death are really conspicuous. We’re all going to die; I myself will die, that’s for sure. It’s like they say, everything around us will disappear. That’s the way of the world and it’s all so empty.

AG: This is particularly the case with your early works, but one persistent theme is the everyday life composed of repetitions and routine. How that life is viewed, I think, becomes an important issue. For instance, in The Girls’ Daily Bread (“Megamitachi no pan,” 1990), a young woman who earnestly goes to class everyday begins to think that maybe that’s not so good. At the end, however, there’s the metaphor of the pool. She says that the students get in the pool and all begin going round the edge together. That creates a current such that even if one person stops, she’ll get carried along. There’s also something pleasurable about that, isn’t there? So there’s two sides to everyday life: the routine of everyday life might be just a bad lie, but on the other hand, it can also be a form of happiness. What do you think in the end? Which side do you prefer?

KN: In the end, of course, I don’t really want to get caught up in the current of that pool. Does that make me a real eccentric? I consider myself to be someone who puts her cards on the table, in terms of my identity. You see, I can go along with that kind of harmony, people swimming together in the same kind of current. I can grin and bear it for a while at least. But I would gradually lose my own sense of my self, my expressions. My fear of that loss wins out and I try to go on, even if it means being isolated. I can’t allow myself that kind of security.

AG: The collapse of everyday happiness can also have two sides, can’t it? One is the progression towards death. But at the same time there is the cessation of repetition. At the end of The Girls’ Daily Bread, the two young women look at the stop lights as they blink on and off and wait for that to stop. When it does, they yell out in joy—there’s that kind of pleasure, too.

KN: What’s true is the very fact of that double-sidedness, I think. Not that you have to choose one or the other. As a direct reflection of my own mind, in The Girls Daily Bread it’s important that both the serious girl and the girl who dance continue to exist.

AG: I wonder whether these two sides are not unrelated to the multiple times that appear in your work. For instance in Katatsumori or in Suzaku as well, the natural flow of time is very conspicuous. But while there is that time in nature that is circular and cyclical—ime that goes round and round—there’s also the sense of time that wants that to stop, or that will stop eventually. It seems both times exist in your work.

KN: Yes, I have two desires: one is to stop that circularity, that perpetual movement at an instant, and the other is to have it all temporally connected. I’m hoping I can keep working between these two senses of time.

AG: Repetition becomes one of the themes in White Moon, but the narration at the end says that nothing has changed in Nara since ancient times. But certainly, the repetition has stopped and the hero has died. Something has changed. So there are these two sides.

KN: I wanted to convey that there’s not just one perspective. His death is a fact that occurs on the earth, but when the point of view moves up and looks down over everyone living on that earth , humanity still endures. The way that gaze shifts position is, I think, one of the distinctive characteristics of this film.

AG: Then Suzaku is a film where the gaze from above, the gaze of Suzaku (the mountain god), is stronger?

KN: Yes, that’s right.

AG: But I did feel that Hotaru (2000) exhibits some form of resistance to that. Of course, both kinds of time figure in the film to a certain extent. For instance, with the potter, relationships likened to a chain, particularly that with his grandfather, are very important. But just when he makes the kiln, they at the same time break the bonds and tear down the kiln. That’s also a very important thing, isn’t it? Could you talk about that?

KN: If it’s going to be destroyed, they want to destroy it themselves. In one way it’s kind of self-indulgent, nursing their ego or something. When they destroy the kiln, they take on the problems that have been showering down on them, and try to overcome them. This is the basic condition of life that I want to depict. There’s no such thing in life as a happy end where you get some kind of closure, or a happy end that comes from protecting something. What’s truer is losing something, and finding ways to get over that loss. Destroying something on your own terms, and later rebuilding it, may seen contradictory, but it’s that kind of movement. And for that reason, people who feel strongly that a film must have such-and-such a structure, or a story is such-and-such a thing, will find it too indeterminate. They’ll wonder “Why did they destroy it?” or “Didn’t they want to protect it?” There will be all kinds of feelings about this.

AG: And one does get the sense the film itself is split apart. There are to a degree two worlds in the film, the traditional artistic world of the potter, and that of the stripper. True, at the end, she does carry on a tradition, put on a kimono and dance in a somewhat Japanese manner; but until then, her world exhibits the aspects of the backstreets of the modern urban city. These two worlds compete and come together, but the problem is whether or not there’s a resolution.

KN: No, there was no resolution (laughs). In Hotaru there is no resolution and it ends with the feeling that nothing is solved.And especially, I’m from Nara, right? In Nara, there’s a terrific amount of development going on. There are a lot of incredibly old houses and other buildings which have maintained a certain tradition. These buildings are being knocked down so that new, modern apartment buildings can be put up. But even if we were able to preserve these buildings as-is—which is a debatable question in itself—it’s impossible if you think about all the progress that’s going to occur from now on. If we preserve all these things, the normal life of the people living there will disappear. One should only preserve what is a part of everyday life— only that is “traditional.” In Hotaru, I wanted to express how these things are constantly in the process of transformation, or how outsiders come into a place and stir things up, and cause the order of things to change. I wanted to look at that process of destruction, and at how things come in from outside and fuse with the old.

AG: In that regard, I felt that it better portrays the complexities of contemporary Japan than Suzaku. True, Suzaku does take up contemporary problems and is shot quite beautifully, but one inevitable criticism is that it brings forward a kind of old-style Japanese unity with nature or a traditional Japanese rural community, things that please foreign audiences. But I felt that Hotaru offers a kind of answer to that criticism.

KN: When I got the International European Art Cinemas Confederation Prize (CICAE), it seemed like it was for somebody who was working fairly intimately with their own country’s culture. I also felt that they had come up with this prize because Asian things aren’t introduced into Europe all that often, and they wanted to recognize Asian culture. In this sense, the fact that Suzaku didn’t get that prize, whereas Hotaru did, indicated in some way that they were validating a work they thought provided a realistic depiction of contemporary Japan. The fact that I showed traditional rituals in Nara had a lot of weight, but there was also the fact that protagonist Ayako’s way of life represents the problems borne by young people in Japan today. People who were huge fans of Suzaku probably feel a little bit betrayed, for instance there were sex scenes that had to be censored in Japan. But in terms of my own identity as a filmmaker, I was trying to show the same thing in both films. The ties that bind people to each other, the connections involved when nature and people’s daily lives coexist side by side.

AG: When I saw Suzaku, I wondered how filming with a large staff after having shot all your films by yourself would affect your style.

KN: I guess what I learned gradually, or rather what I learned through a lot of experience, was that when I was working so desperately on Suzaku, I felt like I couldn’t allow myself to show any weakness. I thought that I had to bear all the responsibility for the film on my own. But on Hotaru, I learned how to work along together with other staff members. It was all right to show that weakness, and work to think and communicate with other people at those times. On Hotaru, everybody was committed to working on the production for a year, so sometimes the atmosphere lacked a certain energy. I still couldn’t unifiy everyone’s ideas, and get them to share the same kind of feelings over a year. I think that’s what happened. I want to work on making a more energetic working environment in the next production, yeah, the next one, that’s what I’m thinking of (laughs).

AG: I’m sure that some will wonder when they watch Hotaru whether the heroine is not, in some form, Kawase Naomi. Was that your intention in making it?

KN: No, no, I was thinking nothing of the kind (laughs)! It might have ended up that way, but of course I don’t think of it as a “private film.” There were investors, too, and I wanted to use this relatively lavish budget to make the film in conjunction with a crew I hired, and I made it with the intention of showing it to an audience. But in the end there were times when I did do the editing, or music, or shooting and camerawork myself. There were parts that resonated with my older works, bringing elements of Embracing and Katatsumori into Hotaru. I think that as a director, the strength of my identity, the strength of the images, was commmunicated to the viewers. In making the world of the film, I’m trying to get at how people feel. What had been going on in Ayako’s head? What was Taishi, her lover, thinking? Some people have seen me in Ayako. This is quite common, but when I finished the film, I was pretty sure that many female viewers would be sympathetic. Women who are like me. That sounds a bit strange, but what I mean is, women who feel like me that something in them is lacking. But a lot of men say the film is really good. It makes me wonder, what’s up with that?! That reaction really perplexes me. There were more men who were moved by the film than there were people who identified me with Ayako. What’s going on? I wonder, have these men all been involved with women like that? (laughs). Maybe these men are identifying with the way that she transformed her weakness into a strength?

AG: Personal film is popular not only in Japan but abroad as well, but when you look at the United States or Great Britain, those personal films, if not being political in themselves, becomes a kind of political methodology for considering one’s identity in society. But in your case the issue of society is left out. You go abroad a lot and I’m sure must run into that other concept of personal film. In the least, when you, a woman director from a country with few women filmmakers, travels abroad, you probably are often asked to talk about feminism or the like.

KN: Yes, I do get that a lot (laughs).

AG: When talking to people abroad, what do you think about the gap between their concept of the personal and your own?

KN: They asked a lot about feminism and the personal at Locarno. People kept asking me why there aren’t any other women directors coming out of Japan. I have to say that I kind of evaded the question, and usually answered that I really don’t know. But when people mention this, you know, I’m not interested in questioning what gender and being a woman means for me and for my work. When I give this answer about feminism, people usually have a satisfied look on their faces, and it shuts them up, but I don’t think they’re really satisfied. People love it when you make something into a social issue. If I say something like “Well, the Japanese film industry has such famous auteurs, and it’s got some pretty feudal structures,” then they seem satisfied (laughs). But I think it’s better to look at problems of the self that arise before you get to those issues.

AG: But one of the arguments against that is that the self is something constructed in society. So the point is, according to this argument, pursuing how society has constructed you.

KN: I think it’s perfectly fine for filmmakers not to think about those things. Even if you’re thinking from the very beginning about how your film is going to influence society, I don’t think it really means anything. That’s what I think. It may seem as if I’ve revealed something terribly personal or intimate, but actually I think it’s more interesting to approach an issue in that way. I think perhaps I’m just not interested in issues in that hardcore way. When people ask me these questions about feminism, I just brush them off (laughs). I say I don’t know. I’d rather have people say “the person who made that film was a woman” than it is to say “it’s because she’s a woman that she could make that film.” If I can make films that please that number of men and women, I’m happy, I guess (laughs).

AG: How do you, who have made personal films, include a personal aspect when shooting commercial films funded by big corporations? How do you create your relationship to those films? That’s a big issue.

KN: I can’t really talk about Hotaru yet, it’s still so close to me that I can’t really let it go. I try to let go of it, but it just comes back to me. And there are a lot of things that I still haven’t sorted out. I’m hoping that people will see the film and make something of it, then pass it back to me. When I was in Locarno, I kept coming up with new ideas. I want to take these personal elements of my films even further, at the same time as I hope to free them up. In one way, that idea of personal expression comes out in some parts of Hotaru, but then some people might find it completely closed. I’d like to get rid of that hermetic quality a bit and open things up.

AG: Your profile says that you are preparing a sequel to Embracing. Are you thinking for this project about the issue of pursuing the personal while also trying to free yourself from it? Exactly what kind of project is it?

KN: Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned filming my mother. I’m thinking I’ll try again to film her. My father died recently, you see. So his absence from my life has become more or less final. There’s nothing left but the house. My mother is the only birth parent I have left, so if it’s possible to have a deeper relation with her, I’d like to do that. If she refuses to participate, well, at least I will have tried. I think I might come to some new kind of understanding too. I’d also like to do a feature film like Hotaru, with the same kind of budget and shot with a full crew.

AG: As a last question, I think one of the interesting things about you is that from a rather early stage, you founded the filmmaking cooperative Kumie. Thus while making your own films, you are also thinking about organizational issues and the foundation for filmmaking. I wonder if you could talk a bit about Kumie and about how you see these organizational issues evolving in the future?

KN: Kumie is an organization I’d like to see last long into the future. Of all the production conditions I’ve experienced up until now, doing it by yourself—which I did at first—is the hardest. So I started this organization, Kumie. People came together to make something, however small, and in that process I think I learned something about myself. Even a minor movement means something, and although it might sound kind of pretentious, we’re trying to cultivate the soil to enable things to grow, making a fertile creative environment. Focusing on the Kansai area, we’re trying to make a place where people can come, work together, and discover something new. So now in Kansai we have VHS editing equipment, a Betacam, video decks, and editing machines for 8mm and 16mm film. Until recently, I’d rent out equipment and facilities for a little money. But then I started wanting to free that up, to make something that’s more accessible to other people, and see people coming together doing work which lives up to the name of Kumie (collaborative image-making). The best thing would be to see people with only their common cause holding them together banding together to make something.

So far we haven’t had time to see a lot of results, but lately former students of mine connected to Kumie have started sponsor their own small screenings. They’ve been using digital video, so production has gotten much easier. When I’ve gone to look in on them, I’ve found them working on their films while holding down part-time jobs. Once you lose the momentum of making films, you soon become unable to make films, so I really encourage them to keep working non-stop. One other thing is that I want young film-makers in Japan to make more contacts with people overseas. To them, “overseas” sounds so far and abstract. But once you get there, if you can deal with language barriers, you find that everybody is dealing with the same kinds of issues. This is especially important since Japan is such an isolated island country. When I went to Europe, I was struck by how easily communication seemed to flow between different places, since there are many different countries next to each other on the same continent. I want more Japanese film-makers to pro-actively get involved in these kinds of exchanges. I don’t want to be thought of as the only representative of Japnese cinema going out and making the rounds. Everybody ought to get out and show their stuff, there are so many interesting people working. That’s what Kumie is right now. As for my own personal relation to traveling overseas, I think I’ll keep filming things that are rooted in what we call Japanese culture, but I think it’s inevitable that I’ll begin working on co-productions with people from Europe or elsewhere. Two people don’t have thoughts in common just because they’re both in Japanese. I think that it’s possible for collaborative work to happen with anybody with whom you have a common interest.

—Translated by Anne McKnight


Aaron Gerow

Former editor of Documentary Box and currently associate professor in the International Student Center at Yokohama National University. Specializes in Japanese film history, particularly prewar and contemporary Japanese cinema. Has recently published studies of such directors as Kitano Takeshi, Aoyama Shinji, and Miike Takashi and is currently writing a book on 1990s Japanese cinema.