The “Japanese Women Filmmakers” Conference

(University of Colorado, Boulder, October 5-7, 2000)

Mizoguchi Akiko
(Ph.D. candidate, University of Rochester)

This short report is my attempt to report on a unique conference, “Japanese Women Filmmakers,” held at the University of Colorado, Boulder in October 2000.1 I gave a paper entitled, “Why Does Yukie Metamorphose? Sexuality, Gender and Class in Kurosawa Films,” which called for a re-reading of female characters of Kurosawa films in terms of what they signify within each narrative. This was the third conference paper in my academic career as a third-year doctoral student in the Visual and Cultural Studies Program at the University of Rochester. It was also my first conference on Japanese cinema.2 The paper I gave was a shortened version of a term paper I had written for a class for Joanne Bernardi, who was “responsible” for introducing me to the study of Japanese cinema after I had come some 7,000 miles away from Japan. “A conference on Japanese cinema focusing on women is rare. I’m sure you’ll learn a lot,” was the comment that helped me overcome my nervousness vis-a-vis this “first” experience.

The conference began the afternoon of Thursday, October 5 with a screening of Barbara Hammer’s Devotion (2000), a controversial work that addresses the “behind the scenes” of the myth of Ogawa Productions. For two full days through the morning of the 7, the conference offered two keynote speeches (one by director Kawase Naomi and the other by Professor Keiko McDonald of the University of Pittsburgh) and six panels consisting of 14 presentations including those by directors Hammer and Hamano Sachi. Unfortunately, I missed the first panel since I was only able to arrive Thursday evening due to my obligations in Rochester. (I was able to watch Devotion later. )

The three-day conference was held in conjunction with the University’s International Film Series. Starting with The Eternal Breasts (“Chibusa yo eien nare,” dir. Tanaka Kinuyo, 1955) on September 6th, the series brought Girls of the Night (“Onna bakari no yoru,” dir. Tanaka Kinuyo, 1961), The Far Road (“Toi ippon no michi,” dir. Hidari Sachiko, 1977), Suzaku (dir. Kawase Naomi, 1996) and In Search of a Lost Writer: Wandering in the Seventh World (“Dai nana kankai hoko: Osaki Midori o sagashite, ” dir. Hamano Sachi, 1998) to the audience in Boulder. The last screening was on October 4, the eve of the conference, with director Hamano present. I heard that all the screenings were well attended by students and general public, unlike the conference itself in which hardly any students participated. I suppose it was because it happened during fall break at the University. Nevertheless, it was a pity especially since the University of Colorado is known for its lively film studies students.

As I have already written, this conference was my first conference on Japanese cinema. This notwithstanding, I had already known some of the participants for some time. First of all, Barbara Hammer and her films occupied a central place in my life for several years in my “grassroots cultural lesbian activist” days in Tokyo before starting graduate studies. A review of Nitrate Kisses (1992) marked my “professional debut” as a critic, I did the Japanese subtitles for Tender Fictions (1995) and I was her interpreter on a number of occasions including YIDFF ’97. I also organized a special benefit screening of her work for the lesbian community in Tokyo in which she made a personal appearance. Speaking of Yamagata connections, I met Kawase and Professor Mark Nornes there. I didn’t known Hamano personally, but she had been familiar to me ever since one of my “leather gay” friends had told me about appearing in the “queer party” scene of In Search of a Lost Writer. In addition to that, Hamano’s script writer Yamazaki Kuninori recognized me from the Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, where I had introduced films before screenings and acted as an interpreter for visiting filmmakers. Finally, presenters Hori Hikari and Tsukamoto Yasuyo from Tokyo have been my colleagues in the Tokyo-based Image and Gender Study Group since 1997.

Of course, the fact that I knew nearly half of the participants in the conference may have been nothing more than an interesting coincidence. Yet it did reinforce my awareness that my position vis-a-vis the film community had shifted since my first meeting with these people. The result was the following question to myself: “What should I do now in my new capacity as a very junior academic?”

Despite what the title may suggest, the focus of the conference went beyond Japanese women as subjects of filmmaking and addressed issues surrounding women as objects of Japanese cinema, while the screenings concentrated on films by women directors.

Another significant characteristic of the conference, in my opinion, was the way in which it encompassed different genres in a non-hierarchical manner. In other words, while the differences between genres like feature narrative films, experimental films, “pink” films and documentary films was a factor in organizing panels, the conference was clearly detached from such stereotypical dichotomies such as “high” culture versus “low” culture, “commercial” versus “non-commercial,” “art” versus “entertainment.”

I can’t do justice to any of the presenters in just a few words, but here are the titles of the various presentations: “Representations of the body by young women filmmakers in the 1990s;” “Mimasu Aiko, an actress of maternal melodrama;” “On my thirty years as a director of ‘pink’ films and about my general audience film, In Search of a Lost Writer;” “Eroticism between women in Osaki Midori’s novel Wandering in the Seventh World (“Dai nana kankai hoko”);” “The possibility of feminist film criticism in relation to In Search of a Lost Writer,” “Recuperating women filmmakers in the world of ‘pink’ films:” “On Yoshiyuki Yumi, a young woman director of ‘pink’ films;” “Tanaka Kinuyo and Sakane Tazuko as film directors;” “Behind the camera: anecdotes of Devotion;” “The relationship between the history of non-fiction film and feminism;” “Japanese woman’s subjectivity as portrayed in the heroine’s search for freedom abroad in Ripples of Change (dir. Kurihara Nanako, 1993),” “Representations of women in Naruse Mikio’s films based on Hayashi Fumiko’s novels;” “Atsugi Taka, a forgotten female filmmaker in the history of Japanese cinema;” and “Reading Idemitsu Mako’s films from Jungian perspectives.”

The fact that three women film directors participated in the conference along with scholars and actively expressed their opinions was also significant. Hamano was generous with her comments throughout the conference, offering autobiographical accounts of her experiences as a filmmaker as well as critical arguments which sometimes questioned the theoretical frameworks of the presentations. Hammer brought her views, informed by feminism, queer theory and feminist film criticism, into most of the sessions as well. In other words, the communication between researching subjects (scholars) and researched objects (filmmakers) was mutual at this conference. This, in my understanding, is crucial for the practice of feminist film criticism of Japanese cinema.

In fact, at some point on the title of the conference started to register in my mind as “Searching For Various Possibilities of Feminist Film Criticism and Practice of Japanese Cinema” instead of the original title, “Japanese Women Filmmakers.” This was clearly something I did on my own, and most likely had nothing to do with the organizers’ intentions.

For me, the conference functioned as a site where both what was and was not there made a clear statement: which is to say that there is not enough feminist film criticism of Japanese cinema yet, and yet it is called for urgently. I cannot give a survey of the tradition of feminist film criticism in this article, but the following issues come to mind: (1) The (re-)reading of canonical works, invariably produced by male directors, with special attention to the analysis of female characters and their ideological functions; (2) the analysis of the process of identification by female spectators; (3) the recuperation of women’s lost, forgotten, and underevaluated contributions to filmmaking; and (4) the critique so-called feminist films from a feminist viewpoint that acknowledges difference.

I have already run out of space without having been able to discuss each presentation in detail, but I would like to make one last comment. I have written that directors, often treated as the objects of scholarly inquiry, were very vocal as subjects at this conference. And yet I don’t know what Kawase thought of each presentation since she spoke up only a couple of times. In her keynote speech, she talked about her extremely strong persistence in, or absolute confidence in, “me” or herself. Since this stance can be interpreted as a lack of interest in social and feminist concerns (some might call it a “post-feminist” attitude), I can only assume that she had different reactions from Hammer and Hamano. And to some extent, it was language that prevented her from voicing her opinions.

At this conference on Japanese cinema held in the U.S., not all the participants were bilingual, including Kawase and Hamano. And yet translators were provided only on limited occasions such as Kawase’s keynote speech and Hammer’s question and answer session. Some bilingual participants volunteered as translators in order to fill in the linguistic gap, but I don’t think it fair for participants to wear the translation hat when they are supposed to be contributing their own opinions, and translating for someone else deprives her or him of the capacity to do so. I may sound like an archaic feminist, but to me, being thoughtful and providing different people (in this case, non-English speakers as well as English speakers) the equal opportunity to speak up was extremely pertinent to the overall feminist agenda of the conference. Frankly, I am hesitant to voice any criticism to the organizers since I highly respect their courage and efforts in organizing such an important conference on such a daring theme as “Japanese Women Filmmakers.” However, I have done so, believing that such criticism will help make future occasions better, and thus even more fruitful.


1 The conference was co-organized by Professors Cris Reyns-Chikuma, Faye Kleeman and Stephen Snyder. Reyns-Chikuma, who was a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder at the time of the beginning of the planning, had since become a professor at Lafayette College.

2 I participated in the panel discussion in conjunction with the retrospective of cinematographer Tamura Masaki at the University of Chicago in early 1999, but I do not count this as a conference since I was “talking on the spot,” not presenting a paper.