The Secret Life of Naomi Kawase
By Nuno Sena
As main guest of doclisboa 2006 special programme on contemporary Japanese documentary, aptly titled »Minimal Stories«, Naomi Kawase was eagerly waited by both the public and the festival’s team (of which I’m also part of as a programmer). After having seen some of her films, namely her very first-person documentaries, you can almost become convinced that you know all about her, that in some way you’ve already been introduced to her even if only through cinema. But you don’t. No matter how much self-exposure she allows or forces into her films, the truth is that she’s still keeping a lot to herself.
She arrived in Lisbon accompanied by her husband and their 2 year-old son, who stars in her latest film Tarachime and who has now become an indistinguishable part of her life and work. She wouldn’t have come unless she would bring her close family. Understandably, since her life story is profoundly marked by her mother and father’s absences (in his case even from before her birth), leaving a hole in her heart that has been at the centre of both her fictional and documentary work. You can only guess how her inescapable attachment to her own child is some kind of compensation to her own previous deprivation of normal family bonds (except from the loving grandmother who raised her and who appears in Katatsumori and in some other films).
During the four days she stayed in Lisbon, the three members of the family were inseparable. Though Naomi Kawase was very professional, always making herself available for press interviews and for the Q&A’s after her screenings (all of them packed), she always included her child in her obligations (the husband remained a silent character, discreetly vigilant over his wife and son). The young boy happened to make quite an impression with the Portuguese audience and he seemed perfectly at ease with is role as some kind of Naomi Kawase’s sidekick (except for one or two natural public baby outbursts due to lack of sleep or proper food). When they weren’t in the festival’s venues, the three of them would be walking around town or going to the outskirts of Lisbon to have a look at the Atlantic ocean. Contrary to what you would expect after having seen Embracing, Katatsumori or Tarachime, I didn’t even for once saw Naomi Kawase holding a camera or making an attempt to do any shooting with her family.
She has been saying for a long time that she makes films in order to leave a mark, to prove that she has been living and also to live through cinema. In the debates that followed her screenings, she repeated this idea and you really believe that for her the most important question is to bind her life and her films into one. That’s her entire film project (and also the idea behind her website www.kawasenaomi.com by the way) and she doesn’t have much more to add to that, which can be frustrating to some people who would like to know more about her work processes and artistic choices. But you’re left wondering about how much more of her life takes place off-screen (not to mention the more tricky question about what fuels her fictional films). Regardless from what she reveals of her intimacy and her private life in her documentary diaries, in her public appearances she still manages to remain an enigmatic figure, a beautiful sphinx strangely aloft from the more expansive filmic character of herself.
Through the language barrier (Naomi hardly speaks any English though she is able to understand most of what you say to her) and through the unavoidable cultural gap (this East/West distance that is so difficult to overcome in just a single or a couple of meetings), I managed to discover that we have some things in common (we’re born in the same year and you might say that I’m also a concerned father). But though we shared some niceties, in the end I still feel that I don’t know much about Naomi Kawase. I definitely will have to wait for her next film to find out more about Naomi’s world.
Published in Ekran, 2006 (9/10)