Nippon Connection and Female Filmmakers: A 2020 Look-Back

For as long as movies have existed, women have been every bit as central to the development and expansion of the medium as the many male figures that are typically regarded as the “original” (read, “only”) masters of the art form. Despite this importance, gender disparity remains a massive problem in the industry to this day, where the upper ranks of those financing, greenlighting, producing, writing, and directing movies are still overwhelmingly male. This is true across the board, in every major national film industry, with Japan being no exception.

Thankfully, the last few years in particular have seen a major push for greater recognition of these issues and a growing movement to change them. I’d like to think that Nippon Connection has been able to play a role in this worthy cause throughout its now-20-years’ existence in raising awareness of the incredible talent people miss when they fail to appreciate female filmmakers. By always giving careful consideration to how to both celebrate mainstream Japanese cinema while also highlighting the more avant-garde, independent, and out there works Japanese artists produce, Nippon Connection has developed a strong and proud tradition of always finding new female artists to highlight in the various parts of its program. In honor of its 20th anniversary, and in spite of the global pandemic that has upended everything and forced the festival to make huge, on-the-fly alterations, this year’s festival is specifically dedicated to the women who will continue to play an increasingly important role in shaping both Japanese and global cinema going forward.

Just one example of how the festival has managed to highlight women in film can be seen in the growing number of awards both the audience and various juries have awarded female filmmakers over the years. The 2018 Nippon Honor Award was specifically dedicated to actress Shinobu Terajima in honor of the remarkable variety of films she’s starred in over the years. At that same festival, in fact, one of her latest works, Oh Lucy! (which also happened to be directed by a woman, Atsuko Hirayanagi), won the audience-selected Nippon Cinema Award. This came just one year after another woman-helmed work, Miwa Nishikawa’s The Long Excuse, also snagged the same prize.

Nippon Visions, the festival’s main venue for more independent works or for particular directorial debuts, has also allowed the spotlight to shine on a number of rising women artists through the years. 2014 saw two female-directed works take home both the Visions Audience Award (Tale of a Butcher Shop, by Aya Hanabusa) and the Visions Jury Award (Antonym, by Natsuka Kusano). Other big wins for up-and-coming female filmmakers include 2017’s Start Line, by Ayako Imamura, which also won the Visions Audience Award, and 2018’s Trace of Breath by Haruka Komori, which received the Jury prize.

In addition, the active efforts by the festival to invite and accommodate as many guest artists from Japan as possible means that every year, lots of great women filmmakers, whether they be experienced industry veterans or fresh-faced newcomers, get to present their works in person, provide interviews, and lead Q&A sessions with an international audience that further expands awareness and appreciation of the myriad visions they’ve been able to bring to the big screen.

Since joining the festival myself, each year has provided me with some really lucky opportunities to get just a taste of the amazing work being done by these artists. Here are a few particular favorites of mine of some of the unique, female-led productions Nippon Connection has showcased over the past few years:

Okinawa Supai Senshi- Boy Soldiers: The Secret War in Okinawa (directed by Chie Mikami, Hanayo Oya), premiered in 2019

As this powerful and affecting documentary work shows us, even over seven decades after the fact, there are still so many stories surrounding the Second World War that are still overlooked or unknown, and that deserve to be preserved and remembered. Here, the directors pull back the curtain on numerous ways in which commanders from the Japanese mainland extorted, manipulated, or just straight-up abused and mistreated the natives of Okinawa in the years leading up to and during the American invasion of the islands towards the end of the war. The most infamous example- the ranks of child soldiers conscripted from local families. Ostensibly meant to serve as an emergency militia, as is always case when children are forced into war, they were basically just cannon fodder meant to allow the commanders to buy time for themselves. It is in no small part thanks to this film and the activism of its directors for Okinawan history and culture that the stories of the few remaining „Boy Soldiers“ are now being recorded, preserved, and memorialized.

Of Love and Law (Hikaru Toda), premiered in 2018

Japanese culture remains extremely conservative when it comes to things like sexuality and gender identity, with greater social awareness and legal representation only slowly starting to pick up steam. This extremely emotional documentary work by Hikaru Toda highlights a gay couple that head their own law firm dedicated to exactly the sorts of legal issues people who cut against the social grain regularly face. Despite being heroic and desperately needed work, though, success is never guaranteed, and the movie goes the extra distance by tackling how heavily the stress of any step back in a case weighs on these two.

Parks (Natsuki Seta), premiered in 2017

This film by relative newcomer Natsuki Seta is a genre-hopping trip; sometimes it’s a family mystery, sometimes it’s a romantic comedy, it has chapter titles and several fourth-wall breaks, it’s plot is tied to the 100-year anniversary of the real-world park it’s filmed in, and just for good measure it has a massive song-and-dance number at the end. Characters from the past, part of the family mysteries the main characters are trying to solve, appear and interact with the moder-day figures as if some strange time loop is going on. It is a consistently fun and entertaining work that will give you plenty to chew over after it’s done.

A Lullaby under the Nuclear Sky (Tomoko Kana), premiered in 2016

It takes a particular type of courage to realize halfway through a project that your concept needs to change, and then deciding to stick with the changes. It takes even more courage when a filmmaker turns the camera around on themselves to reveal their deepest, most vulnerable moments. Tomoko Kana took just such a risk when, in the midst of making a documentary about the Fukushima disaster of 3/11, she found out she’d been pregnant while visiting one of the radioactive danger zones. Drawn now to environmental activism surrounding nuclear power on an even more personal level, her film begins to focus more and more on the growing struggles with her pregnancy and her increasing worries that she may have inadvertently hurt herself or her innocent child. The director was herself present with her son (who turned out just fine!) for the premiere and impressed everyone present with her quiet strength and grace.

Haiyu Kameoka Takuji- The Actor (Satoko Yokohama), premiered in 2016

Even though it’s been a number of years since I saw this film, I can never go too great a length of time without thinking back on it. This is a film with so many layers to it that I can easily imagine more casual viewers getting lost, but it absolutely rewards repeated viewing and deep thought about what’s going on beneath the surface of its fairly simply story; a longtime industry actor has basically spent his career being a stunt double or random extra without ever landing the sort of leading role or notable success that most actors aspire to. Prone to drinking and smoking and not doing much else, he seems to just slide towards his inevitable retirement with no clear passion or goal or sense of what, in fact, his career has meant.

Beneath that rather blase surface, however, is a movie with a lot on its mind about how, in the end, most people in the film industry, are just like the titular actor; struggling away in relatively obscurity, perhaps enjoying a good reputation amongst coworkers, but with nothing like the sort of wealth or fame or legacy that the upper, upper crust of filmmakers enjoy. And the movie is clear to emphasize that this in no way stems from a lack of talent; in one of the movie’s most biting scenes, the actor is called in for an audition for his favorite directors (and when he arrives, the door in doesn’t open at first). The director, out of sight, gives instructions and the actor simply reacts with with his body and face. The sequence is all physicality, with no dialogue, and the intensity of his performance is gut-wrenchingly good. In a more mainstream film about this sort of thing, this would be the scene where the famous director from on high notices this man’s abilities, unseen all these years, and helps raise him up to fame and glory.

Instead, the scene ends with the director just stepping up, slapping the actor on the shoulder, and saying, „Okay.“ It is devastating. He doesn’t get the part.

And that is the fate of most that work away in the arts, whether it be movies, television, theater, or something else entirely. It has also, far too often, been the fate of nearly all the amazing women who have played crucial roles in making film such an important part of human art in the 20th and 21st centuries. Hopefully, with more and more works like the ones above being made, and more international avenues to show them off to the world like Nippon Connection, we can all play our part in supporting them, thus lifting up art and the human experience just a little bit more.

-Noah Franc

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