Upon winning the Grand Prix at Cannes last year, “ Japan’s leading woman director”–Naomi Kawase, now in the “ spotlight” of the Walker’s Women With Vision series–spoke in Buddhist terms of the benefits of difficulty. “ You try to find strengths–and I don’t mean money, cars, or clothing,” she said. “ It’s not necessarily something visible. It can be the wind, the light, the memory of the ancients…”
Nature and ancestry are indeed key elements of Kawase’s The Mourning Forest, whose weighty production stumbled a bit en route to the Cannes stage–merely by way of gathering strength, its maker would say. (She’ll have more to say about the film when introducing it at 7pm Thursday.) If anything, though, the relation between past and present–the focus of this year’s “ Vision” program, as it happens–bears even more directly on the filmmaker’s little-seen documentaries.
Kawase–still not 40 years of age–had made more than a dozen docs before her first narrative feature, Suzaku, took its own Cannes prize, the Camera d’Or, in 1997. Since then, she has made a half-dozen more nonfiction works, all exceedingly rare in the U.S., including Sky, Wind, Fire, Water, Earth (2001) and Birth/Mother (2006)–nature and ancestry, past and present intertwined in both, each film connected inextricably to the other.
(Some practical details: Birth/Mother screens at the Walker on Thursday at 5:30, just before Kawase introduces The Mourning Forest, while Sky, Wind, Fire, Water, Earth screens the following afternoon in room 155 of Nicholson Hall, introduced by the director and co-presented by the U of M’s Institute for Advanced Study Film Collaborative and its Consortium for the Study of the Asias. Both of these screenings are free–and not to be missed.)
The more experimental of the two (in a close contest), Sky, Wind finds Kawase combining discrete audio and video tracks in complex and sometimes disorienting ways. Clips of the director’s teary phone talk with the biological father she had never known–“ How did you get my number?” he asks, among other, more generous things–are played over benign images of people watching TV, as if to measure the oceanic distance between raw familial drama and an evening’s entertainment. (Kawase has made it clear in interviews–as if it wasn’t obvious in her films–that she’s no fan of the Hollywood style.) Elsewhere, shots of nature–slow pans up the stems of dead or dying plants, for example–appear immediately poignant in the context of the filmmaker’s own separation from her roots. (Kawase’s great aunt Uno–star of Birth/Mother–raised the girl from birth at her niece’s request.)
If the soundtrack of Sky, Wind bears the burden of conveying the film’s story (i.e., Kawase attempts to come to terms with her father), the visuals serve as the director’s reflection on the details–as the present rather than the past. This autobiographical doc also juggles elements of fiction–as when a clapperboard appears in a long scene of Kawase talking to an artist about getting a tattoo to match her dad’s. What’s amazing about the presence of that clapperboard isn’t so much that it breaks the spell of nonfiction, but that it gets us thinking about the fundamental artifice of most any documentary, a personal one not least. Clapperboard or no, isn’t “ reality” already being directed in a film whose maker chooses to visit a tattoo artist and roll the camera? Here, Kawase effectively collapses the distinction between her life and her art–much as a tattoo does, you might say. To etch one’s story in celluloid or on the body itself is to leave a permanent record–or, in some cases, a scar.
Birth/Mother–naturally–is about pain. Its first words are Kawase’s, spoken from offscreen to her great aunt Uno–“ Why did you adopt me?”–over the close-up image of something indistinctly bloodier than a Peckinpah frame, perhaps a placental sac. Filming while her elder was in the final stages of dementia, Kawase dares to begin the doc with her confrontational approach to the 90-year-old Uno, who’s reduced by the conversation to tearful quivering. It’s a fascinatingly bold, even abrasive film, never more so than in extreme close-ups of Uno’s bruised, sagging flesh in a bathtub–shocking images, these, beautiful only through the viewer’s strenuous effort (and not necessarily then).
Nearly every image in the first half carries with it the smell of death, reminding us that it’s not a film about a relationship, but about the end of a relationship–the end of a life. At one point Kawase sings “ Happy Birthday” (in English) to her great aunt and giggles as the old woman struggles to blow out candles with her thin breath. As much as the 1970s’ American family docs of Western legend, Birth/Mother is unsparingly direct–and the gutsiest film of Kawase’s that I’ve seen. The film’s eventual focus on Kawase’s pregnancy–culminating in the emergence of baby boy Mitsuki–relives it only somewhat of its ingeniously harsh vibe. Kawase fictionalized this material for the relatively gentle Mourning Forest, in which a young nurse befriends an old man with dementia, following him on a quest to find his wife’s gravesite. But Birth/Mother plays as a work of the toughest love–a cathartic purge, seemingly at the expense of a dying woman’s final memories. (Message: Past and present may indeed be closely connected–but the world belongs to the living.)
Kawase’s films–her narrative films in particular–have been widely compared to those of Ozu and Naruse for taking intimate approaches to interpersonal relations. Not surprisingly, the work has proven too intimate for some. Writing from Cannes, Esquire‘s Mike D’Angelo–not a critic generally known for his great sensitivity–issued sarcastic advice to Mourning‘s bereaved heroine: “ Talk to a shrink, lady.” Expressing himself more tactfully, the Buenos Aires-based IMDB writer who notes Kawase’s “ exhibitionism” does have a point. Both Birth/Mother and the narrative feature Shara–labors of love in the literal sense–climax with Kawase’s delivery of Mitsuki, while Sky, Wind contains glimpses of the then 27-year-old filmmaker receiving her first Cannes prize. “ After Kurosawa and Oshima, I think Kawase will be the next internationally known name among this generation of [Japanese filmmakers],” said… Kawase!
The director, a noted lover of basketball, is hardly her winning team’s only cheerleader, as evidenced in a post-Grand Prix message to GreenCine Daily from a fan named Beruk: “ I’m so happy for Naomi Kawase! Please marry me Naomi!” Note to Beruk: Sorry, she’s taken. Might you find what you’re looking for in the wind, the light?