NYC Happenings: MoMA's Naomi Kawase Retrospective Explores Her Poetic and Intensely Personal Cinema
The films of the acclaimed Japanese director Naomi Kawase are truly original and like no one else's. Kawase was raised in the ancient rural prefecture of Nara, and was essentially self-taught, since she lived in a place that lacked a local cinema, although she did receive formal art school training.
The title of the first short film she made as a student at the Osaka School of Visual Arts is "I focus on that which interests me." Although such a statement would of course be true of any serious artist, in Kawase's case this can be take quite literally as the main credo, philosophy, and emotional impulse behind all of the works she has created.
Kawase has seamlessly alternated between fiction and documentary filmmaking, and uses very similar working methods as she operates in both realms. Her difficult and fraught family history (she never really knew her birth parents, and was adopted by her great-aunt whom she called "grandmother"), the physical and spiritual environment of her Nara hometown, and her connections to, and feeling for, the natural world - all these themes course through her films, and they come through as an intense, unfiltered conduit to the personal details of Kawase's life and emotions. Even in her fiction films, her documentary impulses and her restless search for the meaning and purpose of existence resonate strongly in every visual trope and gesture.
Unfortunately, despite winning major awards at festivals - most notably being the youngest winner of Cannes' Camera d'Or (for best first film) for her 1997 debut feature Suzaku, and winning the Cannes Grand Prix in 2007 for The Mourning Forest, Kawase's films are very difficult to see in the US. In fact, her latest feature An (Sweet Bean) is the very first to even be distributed in the States.
Therefore, the Museum of Modern Art's retrospective Naomi Kawase (running through July 14), the fullest American survey of her work to date, represents a rare opportunity to discover, or to explore further, the films of one of our great cinema artists. As such, it's one that shouldn't be missed.
Full details and the screening schedule are below. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit MoMA's website.
Naomi Kawase Screening Schedule
June 25—July 14, 2016
The Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters
Suzaku. 1997. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. With Machiko Ono, Hajime Kunimura, Sachiko Izumi, Kôtarô Shibata, Yasuyo Kamimura. In a remote, mountainous region of Nara Prefecture, Japan, in the 1970s, young Michiru grows from a child into a teenager and falls in love. Economic hardship has tragic repercussions that reverberate through Michiru’s family, as her father’s hopes for a train route connecting their timber region with other areas fades. This is a masterful film about hidden desires, familial relationships, and a society in transition, featuring performances by several non-actors from the region as themselves. Winner, Camera d’Or, 1997 Cannes Film Festival. In Japanese; English subtitles. 95 min.
Saturday, June 25, 7:30 p.m. Introduced by Naomi Kawase.
Tuesday, July 5, 7:00 p.m.
NAOMI KAWASE: SHORT FILMS
Kawase’s first films cover a range of styles, from experimental documentary to short dramatic narratives. The early markers of her signature style can be seen in these playful, salient films, which focus on recurrent themes: honest interactions with family, friends, and strangers; exploring her roots; and finding out who she is as an artist and a young woman. Kawase uses nature to represent the passage of time or emotional tone, and songs often punctuate the beginning and end of a story.
Wataxhe ga tsuyoku (I focus on that which interests me). 1988. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. 5 min.
Watashi ga iki-ikito (The concretization of these things flying around me). 1988. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. In Japanese; English subtitles. 5 min.
My J-W-F. 1988. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. 5 min.
Papa’s Ice Cream. 1988. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. In Japanese; English subtitles. 5 min.
My Solo Family. 1989. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. In Japanese; English subtitles. 10 min.
A Small Largeness. 1989. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. In Japanese; English subtitles. 10 min.
Presentry. 1989. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. 5 min.
The Girl’s Daily Bread. 1990. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. In Japanese; English subtitles. 16 min.
Like Happiness. 1991. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. In Japanese; English subtitles. 20 min.
Program 81 min.
Sunday, June 26, 5:30 p.m.
Tuesday, July 5, 4:00 p.m.
Embracing. 1992. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. Embracing captures Kawase’s restless pursuit to know her absent birth father. Silent fields of windblown daisies and wheat are juxtaposed with probing offscreen conversations with Kawase’s foster mother (“grandmother”), mother, and father as she explores the meaning of family and happiness. In Japanese; English subtitles. 40 min.
Kya Ka Ra Ba A (Sky, Wind, Fire, Water, Earth). 2001. Japan/France. Directed by Naomi Kawase. Nearly a decade after making Embracing, Kawase began this sequel about her family, and learns that her birth father has passed away. She connects the threads between her original search for him, the aging “grandparents” who took her in as an infant and adopted her, her birth mother’s insistence that she was always planned and wanted, and her unfulfilled longings. She consults with a tattoo artist about getting a tattoo like her father’s and he offers his advice. In Japanese; English subtitles. 50 min.
Monday, June 27, 4:30 p.m.
Wednesday, July 6, 7:00 p.m.
Katatsumori. 1994. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. This exploration of daily life at home with Kawase and her foster mother captures the love, loss, and loneliness between them as Kawase begins to leave the nest. Kawase’s camera focuses in close-up on her great aunt’s face as she eats and gardens. They reach out to and argue with each other, knowing things are changing forever. In Japanese; English subtitles. 40 min.
See the Heaven. 1995. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. This film reveals the love and attachment between Kawase and her “grandmother.” In Japanese; English subtitles. 10 min.
The Setting Sun (Hi Wa Katabuki). 1996. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. Kawase celebrates her grandmother’s birthday and explores the tensions of ageing and separation. When Kawase returns from being away, her grandmother asks whether she loves her; shots of ordinary things—tomatoes, dahlias in bloom, her grandmother eating from a simmering pot of sukiyaki—reveal precious shared moments. In Japanese; English subtitles. 45 min.
Program 90 min.
Monday, June 27, 8:00 p.m.
Wednesday, July 6, 4:00 p.m.
White Moon. 1993. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. With Tokuji Shimotsuma, Kaori Suyama. On a typical day in Nara, a young man named Taichi has breakfast before going to work as a security guard. At night he visits a local bar and meets Midori, a beautiful girl. Every day he goes to work and everything is the same; after meeting Midori, things begin to shift, until an incomprehensible event takes place. In Japanese; English subtitles. 55 min.
Lies. 2015. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. “This is the story about the life and artistic views of a designer through an interview that’s replete with poetic dialogue” (Kumie Inc.). In Japanese; English subtitles. 22 min.
Respect. 2016. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. Two men and a woman are having a conversation. One cannot see, one cannot hear, and one cannot speak. The film questions what it is that they need to understand from each other” (Kumie, Inc.). In Japanese; English subtitles. 4 min.
Program 81 min.
Tuesday, June 28, 4:30 p.m.
Thursday, July 7, 4:00 p.m.
Memory of the Wind. 1995. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. Kawase observes people in the city of Shibuya with curiosity and openness, drawing parallels between life and filmmaking and discovering her abilities as a filmmaker. She exchanges small gifts to connect with the people she meets and to express her deepest experiences. In Japanese; English subtitles. 30 min.
Seed. 2016. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. With Sakura Ando. Part of the Miu Miu Women’s Tales project. Kawase draws on aspects of her earlier film, Memory of the Wind, in this short about a mysterious young girl carries a seed and special “spirit” from the enchanted forests of Nara to urban Tokyo. In Japanese; English subtitles. 9 min.
This World. 1996. Japan. Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, Naomi Kawase. The film takes shape through the form of a video exchange between Hirokazu Kore-eda and Naomi Kawase. Each films the world around them and intimately reflects on their individual struggles with making films. Kore-eda self-consciously reflects on his process, “What does a camera shoot? What does a film capture? The emptiness in my life reflects in my work.” Kawase concentrates on her everyday life and candid moments with her friends, who say, “Hang in there Naomi we are all on your side,” and, “You never keep the promises you make, but I love you anyway.” In Japanese; English subtitles. 60 min.
Tuesday, June 28, 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, July 7, 7:00 p.m.
The Weald. 1997. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. The elderly people living in the forest areas of the Yoshino Mountains and the village of Nishi-Yoshino are resilient loners. Kawase records them in their daily activities, revealing their humorous and frank philosophies about hard work, isolation, loneliness, and growing old. One woman dryly says, “Turn your camera off, being old is not entertaining.” Another adds philosophically, “The wind will blow, the future will come. Without suffering there is no happiness.” In Japanese; English subtitles. 73 min.
Wednesday, June 29, 4:30 p.m.
Friday, July 8, 4:30 p.m.
Hotaru (Firefly). 2000. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. With Yuko Nakamura, Toshiya Nagasawa, Miyako. A young woman who works as a striptease dancer struggles with her emotions since experiencing her mother’s suicide as a girl. She meets a man she likes, but he is also haunted by loss, and they must seek a way to trust one another. Winner, FIPRESCI, 2000 Locarno Film Festival. In Japanese; English subtitles. 117 min.
Wednesday, June 29, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, July 8, 7:30 p.m.
Mangekyo (Kaleidescope). 1999. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. With Arimoto Shinya, Ono Machiko, Mifune Mika, Naomi Kawase. A photographer (Machiko) and a filmmaker (Kawase) challenge each other to shoot—one to photograph the other to film—two young actresses, one from Tokyo, the other from the countryside. The photographer seeks naturalism in his compositions, and Kawase observes and comments on his work. The competition between the photographer, the filmmaker, and the actresses creates a charged atmosphere. In Japanese; English subtitles. 90 min.
Thursday, June 30, 4:30 p.m.
Saturday, July 9, 4:00 p.m.
Shara. 2003. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. With Kohei Fukunaga, Yuka Hyodo, Naomi Kawase. Twin brothers are playing together during the Jizo festival when one mysteriously disappears. Five years later, still haunted by what happened, Shun paints a portrait of his lost brother. As his burgeoning friendship with his girlfriend Yuu deepens, the winding streets of Nara become part of the psychological web that unites Shun’s past with the future. Winner, FIPRESCI, 2003 Locarno Film Festival . In Japanese; English subtitles. 99 min.
Thursday, June 30, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, July 9, 7:30 p.m.
Kage (Shadow). 2004. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. With Hako Oshima, Yutaka Yamazaki. Thirty-year-old Hako unexpectedly discovers she has a father that she never met, while he records the moment live on camera. Unexpected emotions, bitterness, and forgiveness rise to the surface in the unscripted scenes between them. In Japanese; English subtitles. 26 min.
Letter from a Yellow Cherry Blossom. 2002. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. Nishii Kazuo, a terminally ill Japanese photography writer and critic, invites Kawase to record his final days in hospice. Despite the severity of his illness, they speak frankly and profoundly about the meaning of life, death, memory, photography, and filmmaking. She asks him to write a haiku and he responds, “Shall I go, with the falling leaves of the cherry blossom.” And so his words come to pass, but not before Kawase and Nishii make a lasting document of their final conversations together. In Japanese; English subtitles. 65 min.
Friday, July 1, 4:30 p.m.
Sunday, July 10, 2:00 p.m.
Mogari (The Mourning Forest). 2007. Japan/France. Directed by Naomi Kawase. With Shigeko Uda, Machiko Ono, Makiko Watenabe. A younger woman is drawn to an older man in a home for the elderly. Radical changes occur as their fates become entwined. Winner of the Grand Prix, 2007 Cannes Film Festival. In Japanese; English subtitles. 97 min.
Friday, July 1, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, July 10, 5:00 p.m.
Nanayo. 2008. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. With Kyoko Hasegawa, Grégoire Colin, Jun Murakami. A frail young woman arrives in Thailand from Japan and takes a long taxi ride to a forest retreat. Fearful of her driver’s intentions, she runs for safety and is comforted by fellow travelers who help her relax, but struggle to communicate as they speak different languages. Each has personal conflicts to surmount, but their individual concerns are shaken up when a young boy named Toi disappears. The film celebrates both the healing and the menacing powers of nature and passion—driving rain turns into a sunny day, eerie unnamed sounds become delightful birdsong, and dreams release painful memories. Japan figures as a far-off imperialist country, and Thailand as poor but compassionate. In Japanese, French, Thai; English subtitles. 95 min.
Saturday, July 2, 5:00 p.m.
Monday, July 11, 4:00 p.m.
Hanezu. 2011. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. With Tohta Komizu, Hako Oshima, Tetsuya Akikawa. Sculptor Takumi and his old classmate Kayoko passionately reunite when he moves to the small village of Asuka, where she lives with her boyfriend. Their desire is also mysteriously driven by the past—an unfulfilled love between his grandfather and her grandmother. An ancient myth from the region, of the rivalry between Mt. Kagu and Mt. Miminashu over the love of Mt. Unebi, plays out across generations of men and women and into contemporary times. In Japanese; English subtitles. 91 min.
Saturday, July 2, 8:00 p.m.
Monday, July 11, 7:00 p.m.
Tarachime (Birth/Mother). 2006. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. About to give birth to her own child, Kawase gazes at the aging body of her “grandmother,” who with her husband took in Kawase as their own child. A tough but honest and deeply felt look at a difficult shared past. In Japanese; English subtitles. 39 min.
Genpin. 2010. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. Doctor Yoshimura is an obstetrician who runs a natural childbirth clinic based on ideas about maintaining healthy bodies and positive minds, dating back to the Edo period. The film follows several women’s experiences at the clinic, including many activities—the women do 300 squats a day and keep active chopping wood—that run askew from the more conventional attitudes of modern medicine. Genpin reveals the great joy, sadness, and differences of opinion that the midwives, mothers, and the doctor encounter in honoring this way of life. The title refers to the words of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “The valley spirit never dies/It is named the mysterious woman [genpin].” In Japanese; English subtitles. 92 min.
Sunday, July 3, 2:30 p.m.
Tuesday, July 12, 4:00 p.m.
Still the Water. 2014. Japan/France/Spain. Directed by Naomi Kawase. With Nijirô Murakami, Jun Yoshinaga, Tetta Sugimoto, Miyuki Matsuda. The Japanese island of Amami has traditions that go back to ancient times, including shamanism and a night of dances during the August full moon, during which teenager Kaito finds a dead body in the sea. Frightened, he tries to comprehend what has happened, while his new girlfriend, Kyoko must come to terms with her mother’s death. In Japanese; English subtitles. 116 min.
Sunday, July 3, 5:30 p.m.
Tuesday, July 12, 7:00 p.m.
Chiri (Trace). 2012. Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. This intimate portrait of Kawase’s foster mother at the end of her life is a loving tribute to the woman who raised her since infancy, and the final documentary in a series of self-explorations that began with Embracing. In Japanese; English subtitles. 45 min.
Amami. 2015. South Korea/Japan. Directed by Naomi Kawase. Kawase vists her ancestral home, on the Amami Oshima Island in Southern Japan, with her four-year-old son. There they meet relatives, talk with islanders, eat traditional goat soup, and observe a total eclipse of the sun, activities that slowly free Kawase from the loss of not having known her parents. In Japanese; English subtitles. 46 min.
Monday, July 4, 4:30 p.m.
Wednesday, July 13, 4:00 p.m.
An (Sweet Bean). 2015. Japan/France/Germany. Directed by Naomi Kawase. Based on the novel by Durian Sukegawa. With Kirin Kiki, Masatoshi Nagase, Kyara Uchida. An older woman named Tokue appears one day to lend a helping hand to Sentaro, the struggling manager of a small shop specializing in Dorayaki (a Japanese pastry filled with sweet bean paste). Wakana, a serious schoolgirl who wants some company, is also drawn to the brooding Sentaro. When customers start lining up for Tokue’s delicious recipe, the shop’s success—and a rumour about Tokue—have ripple effects that bring unexpected challenges—and bring the lives of these three loners even closer. In Japanese; English subtitles. 113 min.
Monday, July 4, 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, July 13, 7:00 p.m.
Last Chestnut. 2010. Japan. Directed by Ye Zhao. With Setsuko Dodo, Kaori Momoi, Shigeki Uda. Produced by Naomi Kawase. Made as part of the Nara Festival’s NARAtive initiative. “One day, a mother to be hospitalized in Tokyo arrives at Kashihara City, Nara. The reason she is there is to find her son. But the only clues she has are her memories and some pictures in the digital camera, which her son left at the hospital in Tokyo. After the long jouney, what his mother finds is nice friends, the beautiful nature of Nara and her own deep love for her son” (Nara International Film Festival). In Japanese; English subtitles. 60 min.
Thursday, July 14, 4:00 p.m.
Inori. 2012. Japan. Directed by Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio. Produced by Naomi Kawase. Made as part of the Nara Festival’s NARAtive initiative. “This is a documentary that tells the story of Kannogawa, a small mountain community in Japan, where the laws of nature have changed what used to be a lively town. While the younger generations have left for bigger cities, the few remaining inhabitants perform their everyday activities on their history and the cycles of life” (Nara International Film Festival). The people and their surrounding environment are shot and edited in beautiful detail by the director of Alamar (2009). In Japanese; English subtitles. 72 min.
Thursday, July 14, 7:00 p.m.