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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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A Life in Film

Minori Takao

Oct. 16, 2015

Japanese film director Naomi Kawase is renowned for making independent movies that take on difficult social issues. Kawase has won many awards, including at the Cannes Film festival. Her latest work, "An" is set to be released in over 40 countries. It focuses on the social prejudice that affects a Japanese community. NHK looks at the themes of Kawase's films and the inspiration she takes from her own lifestyle.

Naomi Kawase’s favorite place is the farmland where she grows rice and vegetables. It’s in Nara prefecture, where she was born and has lived ever since. She’s made it part of her daily routine to come here. The surroundings remind her of what she wants to portray in her films.

"Human beings are creatures that coexist with nature as they strive to live," Kawase said. "But these days, economic priorities have taken over people's lives. I feel it's my role to convey what is really important in this day and age."

Kawase's films often feature characters on the margins of society. Her latest work "An" is about the relationship between an elderly lady called Tokue and a lonely man named Sentaro.

Tokue is a former leprosy patient who wants to work at the confectionary shop that Sentaro manages.

"Do you suppose I could? I've always wanted to do this kind of work," Tokue asks.

Tokue lands the job, which is her first real contact with the outside world. She lives in a sanatorium where the Japanese government isolated people with Hansen’s disease.

Sentaro has also had a difficult past with a criminal record he wants to hide. Spending time with Tokue gradually eases his feelings of pain.

Tokue’s bean jam becomes an instant hit, drawing in the customers. But prejudice comes back to haunt her when a friend tells the shop owner Tokue might be a leper.

Word spreads about Tokue’s past, driving her to quit the job. Sentaro doesn’t try to stop her.

"The rumor mill is scary," Sentaro says. "But then in this case, more than the rumors, I'm to blame."

"There's a lot Tokue gives to Sentaro and other people," Kawase said. "But they also give Tokue something: the relationship between them. This film shows that it's ok for you to be who you are, and we should accept each other."

Kawase says she chooses such themes because of her own complicated upbringing. Her parents separated before she was born.

She was raised by her mother’s aunt and uncle. Kawase always wondered why she was ever born.

"I grew up not knowing my parents," Kawase said. "I was adopted and raised by people who were not my blood relations. I started filming because I wanted evidence of my own existence."

She began to explore her own identity by creating documentary films. One of her early works "Embracing" is a record of the first time she telephoned her father, who she had never met.

In the documentary film "Katatsumori" Kawase also focused her camera on her relationship with her great aunt, who eventually developed dementia. Kawase spent years as a caregiver. The pain of seeing someone she loved fading away led to the creation of one of her best-known movies.

Another movie "Mogari no Mori" or "The Mourning Forest" is set in a nursing home. A young woman tries to help a man with dementia.

Dealing with the disease is a struggle but it leads to a strong bond between them. Kawase says making the film helped her overcome the difficulties of taking care of her great aunt.

"My personal life and the life I visualize in my films intertwine in a complex way," Kawase said. "Making films gives me strength to live my own life."

Now, Kawase’s life is entering another phase. She is raising her son, who’s 11 years old. She says his presence has changed her feelings towards her own parents.

"After giving birth myself, I thought how could my parents give up such a dear, valuable existence?" Kawase said. "But then I decided that instead of holding onto feelings of resentment, I should move on and start the new chapter of my life. I let go of my attachment to my past."

That's why Kawase's latest film looks to the future. The elderly woman working at the confectionary shop has had to fight prejudice. But instead of holding a grudge against society, she tries to make the most of what life has to offer.

"I show through my work that there's darkness in the reality of life but there is also a future," Kawase said. "By expressing that, I want people to find hope in this world."


Minori Takao discusses Kawase's films with NHK's Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: It seems that Kawase's latest movie has a different touch from her earlier films.

Takao: There are critics who liked her movies in the past but say that this time it is too "soft-centered" or "too simple". Also, the visuals in the movie are more fiction feature film-like and some people feel what happened to the documentary touch that she was known for. And the actors are well-known. Usually, she would recruit people off the street to take on major roles in her movies. Also, "too accessible" is another thing that people say that her plots are too easy to follow.

Beppu: But on the other hand those kinds of things made it possible for her to get a lot of international releases for this film.

Takao: Independent filmmakers like her have a difficult time getting releases overseas. It's not an easy task. This time she has managed to do that. She really wanted more people to see her movies. The elements in this movie are very Japanese. You see visuals that indicate Japanese culture. And still the message is very universal. That's the part that she wants people to relate to and live in hope.