Naomi Kawase directed her first short film in 1988 while studying at the Osaka School of Photography (now the Osaka School of Visual Arts), where she received her initial training as a filmmaker. The title, “I Focus on That Which Interests Me,” could describe the aim of any filmmaker who strives to create works with a personal vision and voice. But the fact that Kawase gave her film such a direct and rather bold title says quite a bit, perhaps, about Kawase as a person.
The short documentaries Kawase made as her initial forays into filmmaking explore her family history, often fraught with pain and difficulty, but also with joy and wonder, much of it expressed by her close attention to the natural world. This is very much a function of her being raised in rural Nara, the setting of all her films. Essentially abandoned by her parents after their divorce when she was a child, Kawase grew up with her great-aunt (whom she called “grandmother”), and her family history is the overarching subject of many of her short films, most notably “Embracing (Ni tsutsumarete)” (1992) and “Kya ka ra ba a (Sky, Wind, Fire, Water, Earth)” (2001), which trace Kawase’s search for her absent parents and her quest to reconnect with her father, as well as the aftermath of his death. “Katatsumori” (1994), “See Heaven” (1995), and “Hi wa Katabuki” (1996) – her “Grandmother Trilogy” – examine Kawase’s loving, but often combative, relationship with the great-aunt who raised her. These intimate and truly first-person films expose herself and her family in sometimes unsettling detail. What is fascinating about these films is how firmly she places them in the natural environment of her Nara home. The natural phenomena she documents are given as much prominence as, and indeed are inextricable from, Kawase’s own actions and feelings as depicted in her films. Kawase often narrates in a sonorous monotone and appears onscreen, camera in hand, reinforcing the intensely personal nature of these films.
Kawase’s inimitable style carries over seamlessly into the four feature films she has released to date: “Suzaku (Moe no Suzaku)” (1997), the unexpected winner of the Camera d’Or for best first film at the Cannes Film Festival which observes the impact of a village’s failed economic development on a broken family; “Hotaru (Firefly)” (2000), following the intense and violently passionate relationship between an exotic dancer and a pottery maker; “Shara (Sharasoju)” (2003), in which a boy struggles to deal with his guilt over his brother’s disappearance; and her latest, “The Mourning Forest (Mogari no mori)” (2007), which once again surprised observers by winning a major award at Cannes, this time the Grand Prix. In all of these films, Kawase imbues her fictional scenarios with the same intense intimacy and attention to details of the natural world, as well as a vivid sense of Nara as a place (you could practically draw a map of Nara based on her films), that she brings so forcefully to her documentaries.
Kawase’s most recent documentary, the 40-minute “Tarachime (Birth/Mother),” returns once again to her great-aunt, this time in her 90’s, suffering from poor health and the beginnings of dementia. The film opens with the startling image of her great-aunt’s naked body in the bath; Kawase’s omnipresent camera recording every detail, every fold and wrinkle, in nearly microscopic detail. The emotional displays of both Kawase and her “granny” are no less exposed; in one lengthy scene, Kawase angrily confronts her about the thoughtless and hurtful ways she was spoken to as a young girl, goading her great-aunt into a giving a tearful apology. However, the anger eventually gives way to forgiveness and renewed affection, as Kawase sings “Happy Birthday” to her granny on the soundtrack. In the film’s latter half, Kawase turns the camera on herself with as much unsparing detail as with her granny, including real-time footage of herself giving birth to her son. Soon after, we see her great-aunt holding Kawase’s newborn son, the ending and beginning of life combined in a moving, indelible image. As depicted by a lesser artist, this would simply be an expression of the hoary cliché of the “circle of life;” in Kawase’s masterful hands, it becomes a powerful affirmation of the endurance of human existence.
Kawase usually requests that “Tarachime” be screened before “The Mourning Forest,” and for good reason: the themes of aging, impending death, loss and grief resonate in both films, and “Tarachime” becomes a potent prologue to the fictional story told in “The Mourning Forest.” Kawase’s latest feature concerns two grieving people who, during their journey through the titular forest, seek to heal the pain caused by their respective losses. Machiko (Machiko Ono), mourning the death of her young son, works at a village retirement home, where she meets and befriends Shigeki (Shigeki Uda), one of the residents who still pines after his dead wife, who passed away 33 years earlier. One day they go on a road trip to celebrate his birthday, during which Machiko’s car breaks down. Shigeki wanders into the thick forest nearby to search for the place he believes his wife is buried. Machiko follows him, and as they are surrounded by the elemental forces within the forest, they grow closer together and experience their own spiritual epiphanies, leading to a beautifully moving conclusion. What is most remarkable about “The Mourning Forest” is the way Kawase melds a documentary-like style of filmmaking with a lyrical sense of the porous boundary between life and death, given concrete form in the scenes in which Shigeki’s deceased wife appears before him. In a key scene in the film, a Buddhist priest gives a lecture to the retirement home residents on what it means to be alive. The enduring value of “The Mourning Forest,” as well as the rest of Kawase’s oeuvre, is its ability to allow viewers to ponder the truly important questions of life and death, the meaning of our existence, and our place in the world.
I spoke to Ms. Kawase about her film at the Japan Society, where “The Mourning Forest” received its New York premiere as the opening night film of the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film. Translating for Ms. Kawase was Brian Nishii.
Meniscus: The concluding titles of your film explain the Japanese word “mogari,” which you define as “the period of mourning, thinking back on the dearly beloved.” Themes of mourning and loss run throughout your work, and in this case you clearly felt it was important enough to explicitly call attention to it. Could you elaborate on this concept, and how it relates to your film?
Kawase: It’s really important to me that I show the short film “Tarachime” before “The Mourning Forest” because it really explains where I’m coming from. I didn’t grow up with my parents, but with my grandmother and with the older generation. So I often feel a sense of foreboding, because when that generation disappears, a part of me will disappear with it. We gain so much of our sense of self through our parents, and most of us have that connection of life that flows from our grandparents and our parents through to us. But in my case, because that middle layer of life provided by parents didn’t exist for me, I don’t have that clear understanding of self. I grew up with my grandmother mostly; my grandfather passed away much earlier. But it wasn’t until after my grandfather died that I understood that in a way I felt much closer to him. It’s when a person leaves this world that you understand more clearly your connection to that person. So that idea is the basis for this film. When I looked up the word “mogari,” I found that it means both the place of mourning and the feelings you have toward those you mourn or miss. We spend so much of our time in modern society worrying about the here and now. It’s through having the experience of witnessing a loved one die or go through the stages of dying that we can reflect on the inner soul and be connected to the afterlife.
So is the Shigeki character based on your grandfather?
The Shigeki character isn’t based on my grandfather so much as it is based on the fact that my grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, just as Shigeki does in the film. When you’re dealing with someone in the family who has Alzheimer’s, you often forget that it’s a disease, it’s a sickness. The rest of the family can get frustrated very easily, having to attend to all their needs. But if you approach it as a disease, you can take a step back, and not be as frustrated, and really be there for them. So my personal experience of caring for my grandmother is the genesis of the Shigeki character and his situation.
Could you talk a little about Shigeki Uda, who plays Shigeki in the film? I thought he was great. And I understand that he was someone you knew who had never acted before. How did you come to choose him for this role? Did you write the film with him in mind?
Shigeki runs an old used bookstore in my neighborhood. He has no money whatsoever, but he has a lot of time on his hands. So because he had all this free time, and because I like to spend a lot of time creating my work, we had a few months to spend in a facility that took care of older people and people with Alzheimer’s. So Shigeki was able to really observe how people under those conditions would behave.
What was it about Shigeki that made you think he was the right person to play this role? I’m assuming the character he plays is someone very different from himself.
I got to know Shigeki four years before making the film, and I had worked with him on another project. But since then, I’d developed a relationship with him and observed him over the years. The biggest factor in deciding to make a movie with Shigeki was the fact that he had a lot of time on his hands. I’m the mother of a two-year-old, and I wanted to be able to make a movie while carrying a two-year-old in my hands. If I were to bring in a star actor from Tokyo, I would be limited by their schedule and I wanted to take my time in making this film. And I could hire Shigeki for very little money. Shigeki’s character is such that he takes on things very purely, and he has a kind of young-at-heart quality about him. Whether it is living in the facility, or going into the forest, he absorbs everything on the sincerest, purest level. So because of that, I knew this role would work very well for him.
Did you shoot this film in an actual retirement facility?
No, we used a village house to create the facility. We consulted with professionals in the field so we could accurately recreate the way such a house would be made into a retirement facility. The old men and women around Shigeki are actual residents of the village, and they’re really natural. My approach to filming was to create an atmosphere, make it as real as possible, and have everyone exist together in that space, and then the camera could come in and film everything like a documentary.
Yes, I think this documentary aspect of your films is what makes them unique, and this effect is enhanced by the fact that for the most part, you cast nonprofessional actors. Could you talk a little about how this informs your creative process? I assume from the way you work that you don’t begin with a fully written script beforehand.
I usually start with an outline and the basic idea. But I keep the idea simple enough so that everyone on set can have it in their head. Everyone working on the film has to, as we say in Japanese, “put their antennas up,” and be aware of what is going on at all times, because at any given second we could be filming, we could be capturing a moment. Everyone on set has this understanding, and works toward this. The rough guidelines of the story, from point A to point B, are basically followed, but how you get there is a collaborative process. The audio guys on my films keep a wireless mike on me, because they never know when the camera is rolling! (laughs) Because they never know, they have to keep in close contact so that everyone’s on the same page.
So it sounds like your method of filmmaking is to create a fictional environment and then film it as if it were a documentary.
It’s an actor’s job to recreate an emotional state, and a director can guide them in achieving that. But for me, I find that it’s better to create an environment where an actor can truly feel something that is profound to them. For example, in the scene in the care facility where the priest lectures about life and death, I basically told the monk, ‘Talk about this,’ and I just let him go. And during the scene, I had someone participating in the conversation off-camera say something that would instigate a reaction that was truly realistic. I’m very particular about setting up scenes and environments in a way that will allow my actors to be natural.
Listening to you explain your working methods in this way is very fascinating for me, because it really helps to explain where your films are coming from. And I think this connects to what you said earlier about growing up around an older generation, because the way you make films hearkens back to earlier generations of Japanese directors, many of whom drew their inspiration from daily life and what was happening around them, rather than from other films, as is so often the case nowadays.
I didn’t come into filmmaking from, as you say, watching other films and then wanting to be a director. Fundamentally, it was my love of the medium of film as a tool to capture the moment, the moment that’s happening right now. When film was first invented, there was that excitement about its ability to capture a moment in time, the here and the now. And that’s really the starting point for my interest in the film medium.
I was struck by the sense that this film brings your career full circle in a way. Your lead actress in “The Mourning Forest,” Machiko Ono, was also in your debut feature “Suzaku,” which you made 10 years ago. Also, both films won major prizes at Cannes. Both films even begin with nearly identical overhead shots of swaying treetops. Was this a conscious choice, to revisit and perhaps update your earlier film?
There are a lot of similarities between the two films, definitely. But casting Machiko Ono in “Mourning Forest” wasn’t planned. I actually auditioned a lot of other people for the role, and I didn’t want to repeat myself by casting her in another movie. But I’d noticed that in the ten years after “Suzaku,” Machiko had grown up a lot, and had really matured. She’d changed a lot; she has a two-year-old son now. In fact, Machiko asked to be in this film. And I thought, well, you know what? She’s matured a lot and I’ve matured a lot, and it would be really nice for us to work together again. And yes, on this film, before I knew it, I found myself using similar shots and following similar storylines. So maybe it is coming full circle, as you say.