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Friday, Sept. 18, 2009

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Clinically independent: Eriko Nakamura stars in "Kakera — A Piece of Our Life," to be released in Japan this autumn.


Women who love to shoot

A rising tide of women film directors in Japan gets festival treatment

Special to The Japan Times

In an age when the guys are more likely to be holed up playing video games than queuing for the latest Michael Bay blockbuster, the huge revenues generated by "Mama Mia," "Sex and the City" and "Twilight" last year highlighted a notable trend — the chunk of global cinema audiences made up of women is substantial.

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Making a splash: Momoko Ando, director of "Kakera — A Piece of Our Life"

In Japan it's currently around the 75 percent mark, something some in the industry have long known. Back in the 1950s, the canny president of Shochiku, Shiro Kido, targeted this demographic with his "Ofuna-flavor" melodramas, named after the town where the company's studio was based, with the rationale: "Women never go to the cinema alone. They always bring either a friend or a lover."

But ask anyone to reel off a list of the world's top directors and you'll unlikely hear a female name in the role call.

While women figure prominently at the front-office end of the business, this sadly hasn't been the case at its creative heart, a situation as true for the rest of the world as Japan. As such, the recent rising tide of women filmmakers in Japanese cinema should rightly be regarded among its most significant developments of the past decade.

The last few months alone have seen releases including Satoko Yokohama's "Ultra Miracle Love Story," Miwa Nishikawa's "Dear Doctor" and Shimako Sato's "K-20: Legend of the Mask." All are by directors who already boast a number of features to their name, in markedly different genres too. It's also worth remembering that last year's critically feted "Tokyo Sonata" not only sported a female cinematographer, Atsuko Ashizawa, but a female producer, Yukie Kito, who hired director Kiyoshi Kurosawa for the project she inaugurated.

This trend has already been identified as an important discussion point at Frankfurt's Nippon Connection Festival this year, while in October, London's Raindance Film Festival also celebrates the phenomenon with a special focus that includes recent works like Yuki Tanada's sassy multicharacter high school drama "Ain't No Tomorrows" and Yukiko Sode's eccentric portrait of a highly strung, headstrong young woman, "Mime-Mime," a discovery at last year's Pia Film Festival. Joining them will be older titles such as Naomi Kawase's re-edit of her poetic 2001 film "Hotaru," and "Lily Festival," a comedic look at the sex lives of a group of elderly women directed by Sachi Hamano, better known for her work in the erotic pink genre. Also featured are three shorts from Peaches Festival ("Bunny in Hovel," "emerger" and "Csikspost") — a new event launched with the motto "More credits for female directors" and organized by Atsuko Ohno, producer of Takashi Shimizu's J-horror "Marebito: The Stranger from Afar" (2004) among other titles — and the international premiere of "Kakera — A Piece of Our Life," the debut of Momoko Ando, daughter of the seasoned actor-director Eiji Okuda and sister of rising starlet Sakura Ando. Released in Japan this Fall, it's a quirky yet touching drama about an oddball romantic relationship between two mismatched young women.

The pace of these changes is amazing. Before the 1980s, the hierarchical corporate structure of the major studios was a major barrier to women entering the industry in a creative capacity, with the scant handful of those who did direct hailing from an acting background, barring the freak exception of Japan's first woman director, Tazuko Sakane, who made just one feature, 1936's "Hatsu Sugata" (sadly no prints survive). Tanaka Kinuyo is seen as the pioneer in this regard, though the six films she made between her 1953 debut "Love Letter" and "Love Under the Crucifix" in 1962 were never as popular as her performances for the likes of Kenji Mizoguchi. Sachiko Hidari, another actress best known for her role in Shohei Imamura's "Insect Woman," made "The Far Road" (1977), a drama about a railroad worker's family that, like Tanaka's films, provides an oft-cited but little-seen example of a woman-directed film from Japan.

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Raw recruits: Toshiya Nagasawa and Yuko Nakamura perform in Naomi Kawase's "Hotaru" (above). Below: Ayaco Niijima stars in newcomer Yukiko Sode's "Mime-Mime."
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The most significant developments have come about through the burgeoning indie scene, bolstered through the support of the Pia Film Festival. Established in the late 1970s to provide an industry entry point to jishu eiga (amateur) filmmakers, one of the festival's more eye-opening early beneficiaries was a 17-year-old high schooler named Shiori Kazama, whose super-8 short "0 X 0" in 1984 paved the way for a commercial career that includes "How Old Is The River" (1995) and "The Mars Canon" (2002). Other Pia discoveries include Naoko Ogigami ("Yoshino's Barber Shop") and Noriko Shibutani ("Bambi Bone").

The poster girl for the new wave of Japanese women directors, Naomi Kawase, though not a PFF alumni, also hails from this jishu eiga background. Following a series of 8 mm confessional diaries, her naturalistically-shot debut feature "Suzaku," about family life in a remote mountain village in Nara, won the Camera d'Or for newcomers at Cannes in 1997, causing something of a media storm back home. Much has been made of Kawase's feminine touch, and this overseas success undoubtedly laid the groundwork for those who have followed, creating what some have seen as a new genre of "films by women directors" in Japan.

However, many of today's filmmakers don't see their gender as having bearing on the films they make. Yumiko Beppu, whose short film "Csikspost" — about an 8-year-old girl in search of a mother figure — featured in this year's Peaches Festival, explains this difference in approach from Kawase thus: "Part of her method is she puts things in her films that appeal more to women audiences. We might all be together presenting our films at a female film festival, Peaches, but this doesn't mean we want to be pigeonholed as women directors or take a strategic approach to promote ourselves this way in the future."

"Ain't No Tomorrows" director Yuki Tanada is more straightforward, "I think if you had the same script and gave it to a different filmmaker, whether they were male or female, a different movie would come out." As the French might say, "Vive la difference," because in Japanese cinema at the moment, the difference is most definitely there to be celebrated.

An interview with Peaches festival organizer Atsuko Ohno appears on today's Film page. Jasper Sharp is an organizer of Raindance Film Festival and is a founder of the Web site www.midnighteye.com

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