Naomi Kawase is walking very slowly through the expansive gardens of Marrakech’s Mamoumia hotel. The filmmaker has just finished an exhausting afternoon of interviewing, and now, it seems, she’s taking her time to smell the roses. It’s been a few years now since Kawase released True Mothers—her 2020 hit about a married couple whose adopted child’s biological mother arrives in their life—and she’s been busy working on her anticipated next feature. It’s about “human evaporation”, she tells me, referring to the phenomena in Japan called Jouhatsu, in which people – up to 100,000 a year – disappear from society without a trace, vanishing as instantaneously as vapour spreads through the air.
It’s a thorny subject to tackle—jouhatsu often occurs as a response to harsh working conditions, as well as other cultural factors, and has thus become a taboo subject in Japan. But Kawase handles it with sensitivity. Par for the course, as the auteur is an expert at finding humanity in heavy socio-political topics, and considers it her responsibility as a filmmaker to do so. During our interview, she discusses her parallel plans to preserve the culture of her hometown Nara, which she feels is slowly fading from public consciousness; she also talks about her role as a pioneer of woman filmmakers in Japan (though, humble as ever, she never refers to herself as such) and her anguish at their current treatment by the country’s male-dominated film industry. And while she talks with the same grace that imbued her stroll through the Mamoumia gardens, it’s impossible not to notice the urgency in her words.
A Rabbit’s Foot: Why do you want to explore the subject of Jouhatsu subject now?
NK: Maybe because it’s deeply connected to a certain type of Japanese religious perspective. It’s surprising but a lot of people disappear because of debts they may have, or because of cheating or affairs. People just want to leave their family, leave their towns, and hide themselves. But the word evaporation doesn’t mean “it disappears’, it means “it turns into a different thing”, like water turns into gas. These people have a feeling of humiliation, and they don’t want to bring shame on their own families—that’s why they decide to evaporate themselves.
ARF: You’ve always been so adept at portraying the specific female experience in Japan. I’m curious, do women evaporate more or less?
NK: A lot of people disappeared in the 1970s, and it was mainly women. Women had a lot of difficulty, now, but especially in the 1970s. People in urban areas are also disappearing at a high rate, and in the countryside misogyny is still deeply rooted in their way of living. We can’t ignore that.
ARF: You pioneered a new wave of female filmmakers in Japan—do you feel like the Japanese film industry is in a good place right now for women filmmakers?
NK: Overall, I feel very sad about the current state of Japanese filmmaking. The power of the Japanese film industry is diminishing more every year. In terms of the female filmmakers, it’s extremely difficult for them to keep pursuing their dreams in the industry. In general, the Japanese still think that the woman should marry, that they should give birth to a child. The “housewife” still exists as a prominent image in the male Japanese consciousness. And women themselves are accepting of that image and lifestyle. The director should be the one to project their own vision, lead the team, and be very strong. However, in Japan, the strong woman is not appreciated. Although that may be the case, there are some examples [like] Netflix where they hire female Japanese filmmakers, and give them a blockbuster-sized budget, and they end up getting tons of views and streams. There’s a hope there, in a sense. In places like Korea and China, their industries are becoming so appealing, and that’s because they get so much support from their governments. If the government isn’t supporting the culture, then it will evaporate itself. As a filmmaker, it’s my responsibility to preserve that culture.
ARF: What has the international film festival circuit meant to you?
NK: Cannes is the strongest supporter of my career. Not only did they present my first film to the world, but they’ve presented every one of my films since then. I’ve made 12 features, and 10 of them have been screened there in some way.
ARF: You’ve always tackled autobiographical themes in your work, certainly your documentary work, and you’ve allowed yourself to be very vulnerable. Why was it important to you to bare yourself in that way?
NK: In a sense you can call it therapy. The act of gazing into yourself through the filmmaking process provides you with a subjective point of view of the self. Me revealing my most private moments on film—moments that most people could not imagine sharing with the world—is a painful process, but it’s a pain that provides power.
ARF: You also write quite prolifically. Does that compliment your work as a filmmaker?
NK: If filmmaking is like therapy, text is like poetry for me. They mean totally different things to me. Text is dependent on the reader’s imagination—they read between the lines and continue the process of creation based on what they find there. Film is very direct. So I try to write an essay regularly for my own creative process.
ARF: Those ideas of memory and the passage of time have always found their way into your work.
NK: It’s always been a paradox within myself. People tend to believe what they can see, but humans have the power of understanding what they can’t. When you see an image of a person laughing, maybe they’re crying inside, and vice versa. What’s important is to use art and creation to offer what you can’t.
ARF: You’re going to be working on the Osaka exhibition in 2025.
NK: My pavilion at the expo is a big project for me. We’re rebuilding a school for Osaka. There are elementary and middle schools in my hometown of Nara that have been abandoned because of the low population of kids. There are so many elders but no kids. It’s been there for 100 years. All the woods that have been sitting there are 100 years-old. So we’ve taken down some of that architecture from the abandoned school and taken all of those hundred years old materials to Osaka to build something new. It’s very sustainable. All the woods, the roots, are precisely taken out from the soil and taken to Osaka. The process has taken about six months. The theme of the pavilion is communication, and the symbolism of life. Rather than pushing your own justice on others, my aim is to communicate that ultimately you are living in me and I am living in you. There may not be any students at this abandoned school, but there is memory. The way I see it: we’re rebuilding its memory in another place. It’s as much spiritual as it is physical.
ARF: Has living in Nara your whole life been integral to your creative process?
NK: I’ve travelled the world a lot, and I’m grateful I have a place to go home to. Naomi and Nara are one and the same, they’re unified. My ultimate mission is to bring things from the world back to Nara, to educate the young people with those experiences. Nara has a depleting population because young people think there’s more for them in Tokyo or Osaka, so to provide more hope in Nara I started the Nara International Film Festival, which will celebrate its 15th anniversary next year. I want to preserve the treasures of that city. It’s the oldest city in Japan—it’s the home of Sake, and many traditional dances. They were born there, and that spirit deserves to be preserved.