Naomi Kawase’s Vision Featured

Published in Feature Story  

From Nara, Japan to the Tokyo Olympics

Naomi Kawase’s Vision

for the Future of Film and the Next Generation

One of Japan’s most prominent directors, Naomi Kawase is best known for her documentary-style and semi-autobiographical filmmaking. As a graduate of the Osaka School of Photography, now the Osaka Visual Arts College, Kawase became the youngest person to win the Caméra d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for her film, Suzaku. At the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, she took home the Grand Prix for her film The Mourning Forest. Since then, Kawase has served on the Cannes Film Festival jury and gone on to found the Nara International Film Festival in her hometown of Nara, Japan. Her upcoming developments include a new film, True Mothers, that was chosen for the Cannes International Film Festival Official Selection 2020, and her role in producing the official film for the Tokyo Olympic Games. Tokyo Journal Editor-in-Chief Anthony Al-Jamie met Naomi Kawase at the 2019 Short Shorts Film Festival in Hollywood following her Master Class on the “Possibilities of Film” and the screening of her short film Lies.

TJ: How did you get interested in film?
When I was 18, the God of Film descended from the sky and spoke to me. He taught me how to enjoy life through film. I know it sounds a little bit abstract and philosophical. I started making films because it was a way to enrich my life, not because I wanted to work with famous film directors and popular actors.

TJ: Can you tell me your five favorite film directors?
Honestly, I don’t have any favorite directors yet. I prefer to gather ideas through communicating with others rather than watching movies. But if I have to name some favorites, I would say Víctor Erice from Spain, Andrei Tarkovsky from Russia, Xavier Dolan from Canada, and, of course, Akira Kurosawa. What I like are unique films that demonstrate a film director’s strong sense of ingenuity.

TJ: What do you love about being a filmmaker?
In terms of making films, you must be very objective. Having an objective eye means that you can take an unbiased look at your life and your surroundings. I believe that perspective enriches my real life and is the best thing about making films. Even if something bad happens in my life, I can adapt it to become a positive thing in the world of movies. Also, I like the fact that films can bring people new hopes, dreams, and optimism.

TJ: What keeps you motivated to continue making films?
I love that film is a form of media that can cross borders. In Japan, we can enjoy Hollywood movies, just as people around the world can enjoy Japanese movies. Even if the story is only about one individual’s life, his or her story may become internationally recognized. It is the globalized nature of film. It motivates me to produce more stories.

TJ: What’s the most challenging thing about making films?
It’s very difficult to change stories into movies regardless of how perfect a story may be in your head. You need, for instance, cameramen, actors, and a large crew to make a movie. Furthermore, filmmaking requires a lot of time and money to succeed. Everyone working on making a movie has to share a passion and vision of what a movie is to become.

TJ: What is the best thing and worst thing about the Japanese film market?
The Japanese film market makes it possible for producers to collect money in only the Japanese market. As a result, Japanese filmmakers don’t often try to compete globally. For example, independent films, like my work, can be popular around the world if there is a powerful story. Whether or not they cast famous Japanese actors is unimportant in the international film market. In the case of Japanese films, however, they can earn enough money just by featuring popular actors in their films. In other words, they don’t have to take risks. It’s also relatively easy to make films in the Japanese film market. I guess the worst thing is that movies with originality are rarely made. Since having connections is very important in Japanese filmmaking, unique movies made by independent directors don’t often attract large audiences. Even if you are talented, you need a strong network to succeed.

TJ: Can you tell us about your involvement with the Short Shorts Film Festival?
I found it fascinating that Japanese actor Tetsuya Bessho has been making short films for 20 years, and I began to realize the opportunities available through the experience of being a juror at the festival and then making them myself.

TJ: Tell us about your movie Lies. What was it like to work with Tetsuya Bessho as an actor?
I think he should focus more on acting. He’s very talented. However, I do know he organizes the film festival and works as a DJ as well. Now he’s working hard to support everyone, but he seemed to be relaxed mentally and physically during the two days that we shot the movie. We shot the movie like a documentary. I didn’t give him any script, just a book, and I asked him to use his own words based on how he felt after reading the book. In other words, every scene of the film was based on his ideas and perspectives.

TJ: What do you like about Lies?
The movie is playing without Japanese or English subtitles all around the world. Since there was Bessho-san, an interpreter and interviewer, in the movie there was no need to add subtitles. Of course, subtitles are required in some situations, but the audience can enjoy the performance more without subtitles. One of my favorite things about this movie is that I used the tiny, classic 4:3 aspect ratio instead of a wide frame, which looks the closest to the human gaze.

TJ: What do you like the best about short films?
Though I haven’t made a lot of short films yet, I like the fact that sometimes short films can convey deeper messages than normal films. I believe that short films are similar to the traditional Japanese haiku, conveying messages and emotion in very few words.

TJ: What criteria do you use when judging films in Cannes?
All I can say is, be yourself. I try to value how much I’m impressed after watching a movie, even though there are many elements of a film review such as film techniques or actors’ performances.

TJ: Has becoming a film festival juror affected the way you look at your own films?
Watching someone else’s movie is objectively very important. Sometimes film directors can’t watch movies from an objective standpoint because many of their own thoughts come to mind. For example, even if a scene itself is very good and you really like it, you should cut the scene if it ruins the balance of the movie. Watching other people’s movies makes me take a fresh look at myself and the way I create movies.

TJ: What motivated you to create the Nara Film Festival?
When I joined the Cannes Film Festival in France, a young volunteer was my attendant. When I asked her why she decided to volunteer at the event, she answered because she liked her town. At that time I realized young people who appreciate their hometowns have the power to revitalize their communities. Unfortunately, many young people in my hometown, Nara, leave and go to big cities. So, I started the Nara Film Festival in order to create a space for young enthusiastic people to get involved in their hometown.

TJ: What is your goal as the official Tokyo Olympic film director?
It will be very exciting for Japanese citizens when the Olympics are finally held in Tokyo for the first time in 50 years! Though it’s only for two weeks, many athletes from all over the world will come to Japan. I believe that the Olympics are a bridge to peace, and I’d like to make a great film including all of the amazing stories that unfold throughout.

TJ: What is the accomplishment you are most proud of?
Having my child.

TJ: What is your favorite movie that you’ve directed?
My background is a little bit complicated. I grew up without knowing my real mother and father, and two old couples raised me instead. My birth mother passed away seven years ago. I felt very lonely when she died because she made my life worth living. At that time, I decided to trace my roots back to Amami Oshima, which is an island in Japan. Still the Water is the movie that I decided to shoot there back in 2014. This movie is like a message to my mother who passed away. Also, it took place by the sea and underwater, which differs from my usual interest in forests and greenery. As a result, Still the Water is very special to me.

TJ: Do you have any advice for new filmmakers?
Always be passionate about film. If you are, you can progress towards your dream with the help and support of many people. Also, try to share your ideas and show your work to others as much as possible. Don’t lose your originality; it is always important to be yourself.

TJ: Do you have any last comments for our readers?
I’m very worried about where our society is headed. Though people say we have a lot of natural resources on Earth, we never know what might happen. We have to stop being selfish and pave the way for a more sustainable future. I have a vision of everyone in the world connecting through film as if we were embracing the Earth. I’d like to be a film director who can encourage people to create a better tomorrow.


The complete article can be found in Issue #280 of the Tokyo Journal.

Written By:

Anthony Al-Jamie

Anthony Al-Jamie lived and worked in Japan for over 20 years. His in-depth understanding of Japanese language and culture has allowed him to carry out interviews with many of the most renowned individuals in Japan. He first began writing for the Tokyo Journal in the 1990s as Education Editor, later he was promoted to Senior Editor, and eventually International Editor and Executive Editor. He currently serves the Tokyo Journal as Editor-in-Chief.

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