A Life in Film
Women of vision

A Life in Film

    In our new series "Women of Vision" we spotlight women in Japan who are influencing society and challenging prevailing norms. Today, we meet film director Naomi Kawase.

    Kawase's career is full of firsts. She was the first Japanese woman to win the Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival. And this year, she became the first Japanese female director to be named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in France. But, these honors have only been achieved in the face of some difficult challenges.

    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 her entire life. She comes every morning to commune with nature.

    Life has been Kawase's main theme throughout her career as a film-maker. Her latest work tells the story of Tokue, a former leprosy patient who tries to find work at a small confectionery shop.

    Tokue manages to land a job, creating her first real contact with the outside world. She had been forced to live in a sanatorium where the Japanese government isolated people with Hansen's disease. Tokue's bean jam becomes an instant hit that draw in the customers, but the good times don't last. After the word spreads about Tokue's past, she's pressured to leave.

    "In my films, the main characters are usually people on the margins of society," Kawase says. "I believe there is a story of emotion in every person's life. That is what I want to portray." The director says the reason why she chooses characters of this kind has to do with her own upbringing. Her parents separated before she was born. She was raised by her mother's aunt and uncle and always wondered why she was born. That led her to explore the meaning of life through film. "I grew up not knowing my parents," she says. "I was adopted and raised by people who were not my blood relations. I started filming because I wanted evidence of my own existence."

    Her foster mother began to show signs of dementia, and Kawase spent years as a care-giver to the person who had raised and cared for her. The pain of seeing someone she loved fading away led to the creation of one of her best-known movies.

    "Mogari -- The Mourning Forest" is about the bond that develops between a young woman and a man with dementia. Kawase says making it helped her through the difficulties of being a care-giver. The film won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film festival.

    Now, Kawase's life has entered a new phase. Much of her time is devoted to raising her 11-year-old son. Kawase's life -- as a woman, a caregiver and a mother -- has not been easy. But she feels these experiences have helped expand her view of life, as expressed through her work.

    In Kawase's latest movie, the hard reality is that the elderly woman has been forced to live isolated from society. But that doesn't stop her from making the most of what life has to offer. "My perspective on life is naturally going to be different from that of a man," Kawase says. "The underlying theme of all my films is 'life' -- what it means to be alive. My aim is to create films that give people the strength to live their lives to the fullest."