Documentarists of Japan, #14

Kawase Naomi

Interviewer: Aaron Gerow

In 1995, Kawase Naomi’s film Embracing was awarded the Special Mention FIPRESCI Prize, and Katatsumori received an Award for Excellence in the New Asian Currents program at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (YIDFF) ’95. Since then, her work has consistently stood out for its bold and self-reflexive style. Fresh in our minds is the FIPRESCI Prize she was awarded for Hotaru at this year’s Locarno Film Festival. Kawase has not only come into her own in the field of film production, but her accomplishments also extend to the realm of literature. Kawase’s film Suzaku, which in 1997 won her the honor of being the youngest person ever awarded the Camera D’Or at Cannes, was published as a novel by Gentosha. Excerpts of the novel were even included on the entrance exam taken by some prefectural high-school students (Kawase admits that she herself wasn’t able to answer all the questions correctly...). Currently she is writing the novelization of Hotaru, also to be published by Gentosha. In this interview, Aaron Gerow, associated with YIDFF since he co-coordinated the New Asian Currents program in 1995, asked Kawase about her films, and a broad range of other issues which affect and inform her work.

— The Editors

Aaron Gerow (AG): Since so many of your works are about family, I’d first like to ask you about your family situation before talking about your films.

Kawase Naomi (KN): When I got into filmmaking, I really started from scratch. I studied film at a school called the Osaka School of Photography (currently Visual Arts School) in Osaka. At the very beginning, our teacher gave us advice about what we should be filming. He told us that we should focus on whatever we found unavoidable, something that we had no choice but to confront. I thought to myself, I wonder what that is... What was I was most interested in, what was most important to me? At that point, the answer was my father. I didn’t choose my father as my focus because I was especially bothered by not having him as a part of my life. But for whatever reason, his absence from my life was a very compelling topic for me. The fact that I didn’t know what kind of a person he was, this person who brought me into the world, probably made me feel a little uncertain about myself. And I thought that if I were going to keep on growing as a person, I would need to resolve this uncertainty about my own identity. So I made my father the theme of the project. But before making Embracing (“Nitstustumarete,” 1992), which depicts my search for my father, I started working on the idea of my father in a ten-minute fiction film, called Papa’s Ice Cream (“Papa no sofutokuriimu,” 1992). Papa’s Ice Cream is about a young girl who goes to visit her father, whom she has never known. It turns out that he manages a cafe, a place where anybody might come and wander in. The girl doesn’t address him as her father, or anything melodramatic like that. She just makes small talk about soft-serve ice cream. The idea for this scene came from looking at a photo album from when I was young. There is a photograph which has been cut in half with a set of pinking shears (laughs). I don’t know what’s on the half that’s missing, but on the other half, there’s me, a small girl about a year old, holding an ice cream cone—it’s a black and white photo. So I took that motif and wove it in to make the film. The filming itself was a bit raw, and my composition still hadn’t really gelled, but I think the basic idea was really there from the beginning. But just because I didn’t have a proper mother and father didn’t mean I was unhappy, like in some TV drama. My great aunt and great uncle brought me up, and I had their affection. I think they loved me even more than a mother and father would have. They treated me with even more affection than they might have treated a real daughter, and I was really very happy. But I did want to think through this uncertain part of myself, even if it meant disturbing the family situation which had brought me so much happiness and stability. I think this desire jibed well with the film techniques I was learning at the time.

AG: For people who don’t know, your parents got divorced and you were adopted by your grandfather’s older sister. The theme of the missing father is thus very important in your work, but I always wondered about your mother?

KN: Right now my mother is in her fourth marriage. She’s more or less settled now, since she has a little boy from her current relationship. Her life has been pretty tumultuous. She was born in 1945, the year the war ended, and she was just a little baby when she was put on a boat and repatriated from the colonies to Japan. Since she grew up in the middle of all that turmoil, it took a lot of gumption to just keep on living, so she has a strong desire to keep going by using her own wits and relying on the force of her own will. For that reason, her approach to life has been very self-sufficient, full of trial and error. She fell in love with a guy, got married for the first time, and had a kid—that was me. After that she married again, and again, four times in all. To put it bluntly, regarding her role as my mother, she has her own family, and doesn’t want to appear in my films.

AG: Have you ever thought of filming her?

KN: When I was working on the production of Embracing, I didn’t film any actual interactions with my mother. The same goes for my encounter with my father. I was able to include the scene where I’m speaking to him on the phone, because I attached a mike to the telephone and captured the sound. But I don’t actually communicate with my father on camera. Of course I talked to my mother as well, but without the presence of the camera. I asked her a lot of questions, like why she loved my father, and why they split up. My life took a pretty definitive turn at that point, when I learned all these things for the first time. Some of this is reflected in my work. I’ve still never talked to her on camera.

AG: Your other works, like Suzaku (“Moe no Suzaku,” 1996) or Wandering at Home: The Third Fall Since Starting to Live Alone (“Tayutafu ni kokyo—Hitorigurashi o hajimete, sannenme no aki ni,” 1998), made for TV Tokyo’s “Documentary Human Theater,” all deal with the missing father, but have you not had much interest in the missing mother? Or have you not felt that lack so much?

KN: It’s not that I’m not interested... I think that I see my mother more in general terms, as a woman, than I see her as my mother. I observe her from the perspective of a woman, and she is a woman herself, so the qualities I see and relate to when I observe her come less from feeling the absence of a mother, and more from feeling the presence of a woman.

AG: One of the first things that comes up when considering the environment in which you grew up is Nara. What did—and what does—Nara mean to you?

KN: Nara is, well, the word that comes most immediately to mind is one word, “home.” It’s something you couldn’t take away from me even if you tried. I feel like it’s a part of myself... On the one hand, you can think of home as a kind of geographical place. When I think about leaving Nara, on one hand, it’s easy enough to pick up and physically leave. But to me Nara is more than just a place; it has a presence that’s just as real as my own flesh and blood. So my relation to Nara is totally separate from the issue of whether I’m actually physically present there or whether I’m actually filming in Nara. It’s just ̉there;” it’s that much an integral part of me.

AG: I once heard that your great uncle took you to the mountains a lot. Is that right? Did you have a lot of chances to immerse yourself in nature?

KN: Yes, we were always quite close to nature. My great uncle grew up in the mountains in Gifu. He was really great at things like catching fish in the river, and collecting fruit in the mountains. And when we were living together in Nara, we’d sometimes bring persimmons in from the mountains and hang them up to dry outside. Our house is in an apartment complex, but we would hang out persimmons to dry just in front of the apartment. Or sometimes we would collect mountain vegetables and cook them up in soy sauce to preserve them. I remember that when I was a small child nature entered into our daily lives in all kinds of ways.

AG: Given your upbringing, how did you get into the world of film?

KN: Until I was about eighteen, I never even gave film a second thought. I suppose that was because there just weren’t movies around me. If there had been any kind of image culture around me, it would have been television, not movies. And while there was TV in the background, my awareness of it never reached a point where I wanted to be involved with making things for television. But when I was about eighteen, I started to think about choosing a career, and to want some kind of a job that I could really throw myself into for the long haul. I had a vague idea that if I could make my living doing something creative, I would be satisfied. I might well have been just as happy making art. Music probably would have made me happy too, or some kind of craft, but for some reason I came into contact with film. Originally, I went to school to learn television production. But instead I ran into film—the little one-frame world of 8mm films. A world that has contact with the larger world or the universe, something that appears as it is strung together, developed and projected. My father and mother got divorced, so I could easily not even have been here. I’m hyper-aware of each second as it passes away from the present. When I started working with film, I was incredibly moved by how I could once again project and re-create these moments in the space of the theater. People ask me whether I make documentary or fiction. I tend to think of my work in a different way, in terms of creating a world.

AG: Photographs appear in a lot in your films. For instance, family photographs. There’s a photo, and then you try to make that which is missing appear, like when you have your father’s picture and you search for the real person. So I get the sense that in your work film operates like a device for supplementing that which is missing.

KN: Yes, that’s right, I bet you’re right. I am definitely lacking in something (laughs). I think that something inside of me was missing, and I didn’t quite have the resources to fill it up. If this had been resolved by a friend, or some other person, that might have been really lucky. I mean being able to communicate, to be in synch with someone else. But I think this kind of companionship has been fundamentally missing from my experience. So film, which may just be a fictional world, allows me to confirm my existence by making imaginary spaces more real.

AG: But in that case, I feel that it’s not just the completed work or the material film itself, but the process of filming itself that also works as supplementing device.

KN: When I’m actually filming, it’s extremely painful (laughs), that’s for sure. When it’s painful like that, I ask myself what in the world I’m doing, making this film when it takes such an emotional toll on me. But when I actually get into the process and it has taken shape, there’s a me who’s glad she’s done it. That’s why I keep doing it.

AG: Some of your first films in school were assignments asking you to go out on the street and film people and things. In that, the question of your relationship to the object being filmed comes up, but in your case, you often shoot things and people with close-ups.

KN: Yes, especially beginning with Katatsumori (1994). Well, actually I think my tendency for close-ups was there from the beginning, my desire to get as close as I can to something. And when I get that close, I want to touch it. Of course on one level I’m referring to being able to touch the material object. But in reality it’s the interior of my subject that I want to approach. Even though that kind of proximity is frightening, that feeling of wanting to get closer is very compelling to me. So when I shoot in 8mm, it’s almost all done in close-up. I almost never use a long lens. I shoot closer, and closer, until I can almost reach out and touch my subject. This kind of technique has become my method for connecting to the world. But to tell you the truth, some day I’d like to be able to connect my interiority with the interiority of another person even without the aid of the camera (laughs).

AG: One reason I’m impressed when I see your films is because I don’t have that kind of courage. I’m not brave enough to come up to a stranger in the street and ask, “Let me film you!” It’s amazing how well you do it. But while such encounters do have their scary side, they can be opportunities to meet people.

KN: I think it’s really important to maintain these relationships, the ones that come out of filming people. To see them not just as one-time-only encounters. It’s really important to me as a person that these relationships live beyond that initial meeting. As for whether that’s important for the film itself, well, that’s another question entirely.

AG: But considering the fact that you can do this while I can’t, judging from your films—since I don’t know you that well personally—I wonder if it’s not because you have this gentle gaze, this skill in relating to people. When I watch your films, that gentle gaze stands out, and is often considered one of your special characteristics.

KN: Yes, isn’t it, though (laughs).

AG: But what do you think?

KN: I think it’s rather hard for me to tell objectively whether my approach is “nice and gentle” or not. But for the older residents of the de-populated village where I filmed The Weald (“Somaudo monogatari,” 1997), for instance, my presence was probably something like a ray of light. For me, too, the time that I spent with them was really wonderful—it was really a good feeling. When I shot it, I felt that it would be nice if all the people I was working with had been my grandmothers and grandfathers in real life. If documentary filmmakers like Ogawa Shinsuke or Tsuchimoto Noriaki had shot the same material, they would have had a really different take on it. They would try to capture the entire community, and they would explain how it worked from an objective point of view, revealing something about the community over the course of the film. But personally, I’ve completely eliminated such a world view from my work. I put that and social phenomena aside. Because I depict this community in a more personal way, showing the relations between myself and the people in it, some people might criticize my films because they’re not very analytical. I think the phrase “spin together” fits me quite well. It’s a world that would not have existed if those conversations between me and these people hadn’t taken place.

AG: That’s why that intimacy comes out. You don’t get that real intimacy from an objective position.

KN: For me, the issue isn’t social, or depopulation. I myself am the issue. That’s why I think I end up with the kind of a gaze that seems “nice” or “gentle.” But I think it’s debatable whether that gaze can be attributed to “niceness,” or whether it’s ultimately more motivated by an avoidance of other issues.

AG: The problem that always arises from shooting a relationship with another person through the camera is the kind of influence the camera has on that relationship. For instance, My Sole Family (“Tatta hitori no kazoku,”1989) is the first work where you film your great aunt and your way of shooting her with close-ups appears from that film. But what is interesting is that a title appears at the end—I forget the exact words—that says that in using the camera, “My relationship with my grandma changed.”

KN: Oh yes, I remember (laughs). I haven’t seen it in several years (laughs). I haven’t shown My Sole Family to anyone in ages. It’s a work I put away for safe-keeping. But since you mention it, actually it’s the first work where I film my great aunt. Bringing up My Sole Family reminds me that it was during that film that I started to realize that the family was ultimately the focus of my work. When I made this film, I had only been making films for about a year. I shot it in about the winter of 1989. I think I was just beginning to get a feel for the consciousness of the camera. I was constantly thinking in terms of whether it was better to have the camera, or not have the camera, I was really flustered by having to think about this decision all the time. But at that time, I probably had only a very vague idea that the me with the camera and the me without it were different.

AG: Did your opinion change afterwards?

KN: I think my attitude has changed quite a lot. I began to film with the consciousness that the camera was there. So the regular, everyday Kawase Naomi who happened to be carrying a camera and happened to get some interesting things on film, began to began to consciously create with the camera. That’s what my perspective became. There’s an added gaze, the knowledge that “I am looking in this way,” or that “My great aunt is looking this way.”

AG: Which means that, instead of objectively recording a relationship that already exists, you create a better relationship by using the camera as a kind of medium?

KN: Yes, in a way I feel like I had overcome something. That kind of worry, anxiety. I was more determined, I felt as if I’d arrived at somewhere different, it was exciting. I thought “I have a camera!” (laughs). I stopped thinking about what it would be like if the camera was not there, and tried to make a go of it from the position of having the camera.

AG: In that sense, instead of the way of thinking often found in documentary theory that the camera destroys reality by interfering with it, you use the camera as a postive tool, not to destroy, but to create a reality.

KN: Yes, that’s exactly right. It is in fact a documentary, but from Katatsumori on, I had the conviction that the result was a world that I myself had created. I think that shows up in the documentaries as well as fictions that follow.

AG: In that regard, I recently watched The Setting Sun (“Hi wa katabuki,” 1996) and—while this just may be my impression—felt it was a work that was self-critical towards that kind of relationship mediated by the camera. First, a lot of your great aunt’s complaints appear in the film, such as “You never show me your films” or “You’re a child who’s never nice to me.” The feeling we get from seeing your films is of a Kawase Naomi who’s nice to her great aunt. But I sense that this work asks whether the reality created in those films is actually real or true.

KN: People who like Katatsumori, including Tamura Masaki, who was a jury member when it won an Award for Excellence at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival ’95, and later worked as cinematographer on Suzaku, all say that it’s because the film is a complete world of its own. They praised me for being able to create such an intimate relationship with my great aunt on screen. But then someone else dismissed the film entirely, saying it was just a home movie. Or people said that of course our relationship would be represented as it was in the film, because we’re so close in real life! When I heard that, I thought, well, that person must come from a really well-off family, and all their family must get along without any conflict at all! (laughs). For me, the relationship was only possible because of the camera. Actually, after my great uncle died, I barely ever talked to my great aunt. I was worried that I might disturb her if I did things like complain about the fact that she’s getting old. When I put it into words, I was in danger of hurting her, so I pretty much just clammed up.

AG: What I read in the film relates to that. I wondered whether it shows some regret about seeing the camera as a tool. When we see the film as spectators, we sense that gentle gaze in the close-ups, but at the same time, doesn’t it seem a bit unrelenting? Do you really have to go that far. Some of those filmed also feel, “Hey, don’t get so close.” And certainly in The Setting Sun, your great aunt says, “That’s enough,” several times, and the camera bumps into her several times. So I wonder whether or not this film raises the issue of the camera as an obstacle.

KN: Our relation probably became closer while I was filming her. Because my great aunt was so aware of the presence of the camera, she collapsed the two into one, identifying me as one and the same with the camera. I think she also felt that the camera got in the way as it got closer and closer. Yes, I think it probably had that effect. And for that reason, our relationship really became intimate when the camera dropped out of it.

AG: So the camera was useful as a catalyst, but things have become such that it’s now no longer needed?

KN: Yes, I think that’s that I wanted to shoot Suzaku so quickly. The dramatization and the script were ready. Suzaku was a film that was created out of some very strong convictions. I wanted to capture the expressions of the villagers as they had seemed real in the time I spent living with them. I wanted to work with actors, and I especially wanted to make it in collaboration with other crew members.

AG: This relates to that kind of use of the camera, but establishing relationships with people through the camera, while it can be a form of communication, also raises the issue of the relations of power there. In particular, when I saw Manguekyo (“Mangekyo,” 1999), I felt one had to think of the power relationships there. The set-up is that you are supposed to compete with the photographer Arimoto in shooting these two young women, but when you look at it in the end, you can’t help but think that you are the most powerful one in the film, that you hold the reins. And perhaps that is because you hold the film camera...

KN: Yes, I think that’s probably true. The fact of the matter was that I was the one with the camera, and the staff was on the side of the film, not the photographs, so their presence helped back me up. The film wasn’t part of the photographs; the photographs were part of the film. And Arimoto was ultimately responsible for the photographs, and I was responsible for the film. Given that power relationship, film was the victor from the beginning. Yes, it was that kind of structure. But if I had made Manguekyo at the same time as I made Suzaku, I think we would have had about the same level of power.

AG: So Suzaku enabled you to become more confident?

KN: Until Suzaku, I think you could classify my works as personal films. Even if I was working with other staff members, these were people who had been my students, or people who were working under me. With Suzaku, I was working with people who had the same kind of authority as me, or even more experience, like Tamura, for the first time. All these people had made themselves available to work on the film, so I had to address their questions and concerns in a decisive way, giving yes-or-no answers, and I learned a lot on the job. And I had to learn how to do things besides just coming up with ways to effectively express my own thoughts. Making things in collaboration with other people, sticking my foot in and saying something when it needs to be said. I learned a lot working on Manguekyo—the crew were really receptive to what I wanted to do. Arimoto was used to working independently. When he first started working on the crew, he felt like they were all his enemies.

AG: Your advice—and, some ways, criticism—for him was that, first of all, he wasn’t cooperating with the crew and, in addition, that he wasn’t shooting the real, like you do, through a relationship with it. That probably derived from the fact that, until then, he had only worked alone.

KN: My job as a director, which I was still in the process of learning, was to get people to perform certain roles on the set. In this context, I think this brought some of Arimoto’s weaknesses to the fore. But I was hoping that, precisely because of the tension between our roles, he’d be able to conquer some of the things that were keeping him down. I was hoping this would push him to find a different identity, not just to improve what he was doing. But I wasn’t just leaning on him. And that’s why every critical thing that I said to him, which may have seemed harsh to him, rebounded back onto me as well. To say that he couldn’t do something was to say that I couldn’t do it. So there were some extremely painful moments. The more it was reinforced that I was the strongest figure on the set, the more the vulnerability of the actors, like Mifune Mika, and Ono Machiko, and the more Arimoto’s troubles all came to rest on me, too. Until Manguekyo, I’d been the only point of reference for the world of a film. I was the reference point for everything, and I had worked to explore this personally-motivated world in Suzaku and The Weald. When Manguekyo came around, it was like staking everything that had come before, with the real possibility that I might lose it all (laughs).

next >>


Born May 30, 1969, in Nara; film director.

Graduated in 1989 from the film department of the Osaka School of Photography (currently Visual Arts School). Her independently made films Embracing (1992) and Katatsumori (1994) won the FIPRESCI Prize and New Asian Currents Jurists’ Special Mention at the 1995 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, bringing her recognition from critics both in Japan and abroad. In 1996, she was awarded the Camera D’Or (for best feature film by a new director) at the Cannes Film Festival for Suzaku, her feature film debut. She became the youngest director ever to receive the award. Her 1997 documentary, The Weald, was set in the village of Nishi-Yoshino, in Nara prefecture, and featured residents of the village. After premiering at the International Competition of YIDFF ’97, The Weald received a special prize at Visions du Réel in 1999. The next year at Visions du Réel, ten of her works were shown in a retrospective, including Manguekyo. She is currently working on the sequel to Embracing. Her latest work, Hotaru, had its world premiere in the competition section of the Locarno International Film Festival, where it was awarded both the FIPRESCI Prize and the CICAE Prize. In Japan, the film will premiere in theaters in the spring of 2001. Kawase was awarded the ACC prize in 2000 for her direction of a commercial film for Sumitomo Life Insurance, “Security for Caring.” Last year she served as a member of an informal advisory council organized by the late Prime Minister Obuchi, Envisioning Japan in the Twenty-First Century. Currently she is serving as a member of the 2010 Committee to Commemorate the 1300th Anniversary of Heijo-kyo, an ancient imperial capital in Nara. Kawase has written a novelization of her film, Suzaku (Gentosha), and is in the process of adapting Hotaru.



  1988     I Focus on That Which Interests Me (5 min, 8mm)
The Concretization of These Things Flying Around Me (5 min, 8mm)
My J-W-F (10 min, 16mm)

Papa’s Ice Cream (5 min, 16mm)
  1989 My Sole Family (10 min, 8mm)
Presently (5 min, 8mm)
A Small Largeness (10 min, 16mm)
  1990 The Girls’ Daily Bread (25 min, 16mm)
  1991 Like Happiness (20 min, 8mm)
  1992 Embracing (40 min, 8mm)
  1993 White Moon (55 min, 16mm)
  1994 Katatsumori (40 min, 8mm)
  1995 See the Heavens (10 min, 16mm)
Memory of the Wind: At Shibuya on December 26, 1995 (30 min, VTR, MXTV)
  1996 This World (correspondence between Kawase Naomi and Koreeda Hirokazu)
The Setting Sun (45 min, 8mm to 16mm)
Suzaku (95 min, 16mm to 35mm)
  1997 The Weald (73 min, 8mm and VTR to 16mm)
  1998 Wandering at Home: The Third Fall Since Starting to Live Alone (45 min, VTR and 8mm, TV Tokyo)
  1999 Manguekyo (90 min, 16mm and 35mm)
  2000 Hotaru (164 min, 35mm)