Master Class: Naomi Kawase


Naomi Kawase

As part of the ongoing Short Shorts Film Festival currently taking place in Tokyo and Yokohama, internationally renowned director Naomi Kawase conducted an early evening “master class” to a packed house at the Laforet Museum on June 10.

As she has done at other film festivals and events, Kawase took the stage alone and essentially presented several clips of her films with commentary. There was a brief Q&A afterward.

Beyond Kawase’s own insights into film making, the event was a great opportunity to see pieces of the director’s early 8 mm work. There’s her very first effort, a collection of grainy snapshots of Osaka street scenes, all underscored by the signature sound of the 8 mm camera. Kawase noted that her early work in 8 mm forced her to pay close attention to framing, ambient sound, and timing, particularly the use of close-up shots and carefully choosing how long to focus on a particular scene.

In Katatsumori, we see her slowly open a window to gaze out at her grandmother*, picking peas and chatting with a neighbor. Kawase’s own hand reaches out as if to touch her distant grandmother. In this moment, Kawase says, she was filming her “real” grandmother, who was completely unaware that she was being filmed. In the next scene Kawase actually approaches her grandmother and reaches out to touch her face, and then holds the peas she has picked. Later, there’s a succession of quick shots of objects that Kawase loudly names (“Laundry! Clouds! Bugs! Grandma! Naomi!), almost as if she’s bringing these things into existence by filming and naming them. Kawase says that it was moments like these that allowed her to feel the difference between objectivity and subjectivity, her own “dual self” as the film maker and the person appearing as an object in the film itself.

“If you have a room and a window, you’ve got a story to tell,” Kawase said at one point, referring to the view through the window that allowed her access to her grandmother’s world. “Filming things that are precious or of interest to you is what makes a good film.” In her early work, these things include food, insects, laundry, and her own grandmother, but her careful, slow-moving camera attention to these objects imbues them with a cinematic quality they might not otherwise have.

In addition to her early work, Kawase also screened her latest short film Lies (Uso), a collaboration with actor Tetsuya Bessho (also the founder of the Short Shorts Film Festival) that premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in 2015. Bessho plays a fashion designer being interviewed via a Japanese interpreter (Ai Ozaki), and as the interview unfolds we begin to realize that the interpreter isn’t exactly an impartial participant. Kawase says she was inspired to make the film by her own experience at Cannes, where interpreters aren’t always able to convey her exact words. Interestingly, the film features no subtitles, meaning that it’ll be a very different experience for bilingual viewers since Ozaki’s interpretation of Bessho’s words is somewhat biased, to put it mildly. (I loved it.)

Kawase’s talk was engaging and the format was a refreshing change from the usual interview style (where, depending on the interviewer, questions often lack depth and tend to be fawning). It was also refreshing to see a Japanese female film maker unapologetically take charge of a room, with none of the soft-spoken delicacy and deferring to older men that seems to be de rigeur for young women in the Japanese entertainment industry. Directors and creatives  often struggle to speak clearly about their work (which they shouldn’t have to, really, if the work speaks for itself), but Kawase never faltered–she’s been doing this for a while, and she has a clear sense of her own work and her role in the film world.

*As Kawase has noted in interviews and in her own work, she was raised by her great aunt and uncle, who she always called “obachan” and “ojichan” (“grandmother” and “grandfather”).


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