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6 Naomi Kawase movies to check out before her official film of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Watch these to understand the talented director who traverses the distorted space between fiction and non-fiction.

Before the start of each Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee and the Organizing Committee of the Games review proposals from filmmakers wishing to direct the official Olympics film. What they’re looking for in applicants is an ability to look beyond the obvious and capture the culture of the next Olympic venue in a unique and engaging way. For Tokyo 2020, that honor went to the Nara-based filmmaker Naomi Kawase for “her understanding of Japanese culture and Olympic values and strong track record and outstanding international recognition.” And were they right!

Kawase is one of Japan’s most acclaimed filmmakers and only the fifth woman to direct an official Olympic Game film, the documentary nature of which will take her back to her roots. The child of a dysfunctional marriage that led to separation from both her parents, Kawase was raised by her great-aunt. The absence of parental influence would haunt Kawase as a long-lasting personal trauma, which she would attempt to heal on more than one occasion through her work as a filmmaker. Ironically, it is precisely this trauma that has helped identify her unique documentary style and storytelling. Kawase’s first big project was “Embracing” (1992) where she documented her search for the father that left her when she was young, which she then followed up with “Katatsumori” (1994) chronicling her complicated relationship with the woman who raised her. But to truly understand how Kawase will attempt to take the Tokyo Olympic games and freeze them “into eternity,” one needs to watch her past work. Here are five of her best so far plus her latest release scheduled for later in the year to put on your must-watch list.

1. Suzaku (萌の朱雀), 1997

The story of Suzaku kicks off once Kozo, the patriarch of the Tahara family who live in a mountainous village in Nara, loses all willpower after the construction of a nearby railway gets abandoned, robbing him of any hope of finding future employment there. Taking his favorite 8mm camera and wandering off, Kozo eventually ends up dead, leaving his family to deal with the aftermath. Between the themes of the turmoil caused by the absence of a family member and documentary-style 8mm filmmaking, it’s easy to see how Kawase’s own experiences influenced the story of Suzaku. And while autobiographical elements might not be the only things that define the director’s works, this 1997 film is an excellent introduction to a fundamental facet of Naomi Kawase’s distinct style.

Cast: Jun Kunimura, Machiko Ono, Sachiko Izumi

2. The Mourning Forest (殯の森), 2007

Richer in emotions rather than story, “The Mourning Forest” focuses on widower Shigeki, who suffers from dementia, and his new caregiver Machiko, who has lost her son and blames herself for it. One day, during an excursion to Shigeki’s wife’s grave, he and Machiko enter and lose their way in a vast, primeval forest. In this mysterious place at the border between reality and fantasy, various ideas are explored: dealing with death, keeping the departed within us, or the challenges the elderly face in Japan. But nothing is ever spelled out for the audience. Rather, we’re allowed to observe the journey of Shigeki and Machiko and bask in the authenticity of their performances thanks to Kawase’s subtle touch and willingness to let her work speak for itself.

Cast: Shigeki Uda, Machiko Ono, Makiko Watanabe

3. Still the Water (2つ目の窓), 2014

“Still the Water” is a movie about opposites. The theme of life and death is present throughout the film, notably in how the romance between its two main characters, the shy and awkward Kaito and his outgoing, fearless classmate Kyoko, is kickstarted by the discovery of a drowned man’s body. Both teenagers are also dealing with fragmented family lives, one caused by an impending absence of a parent, the other by the presence of one. All those dualities mix and influence each other, with death turning to life only to foreshadow death in an engaging and lyrical yin yang dance of sorts.

Cast: Nijiro Murakami, Jun Yoshinaga, Tetta Sugimoto

4. Sweet Bean (An) (あん), 2015

Based on the novel by Durian Sukegawa, “Sweet Bean” tells the story of a store owner selling dorayaki (small pancakes wrapped around sweet red bean paste) who takes in an older employee named Tokue after tasting her delicious dorayaki filling. He, however, later lets her go after customers find out that Tokue used to suffer from leprosy, elegantly segueing into one of the film’s central themes, that of breaking free of your past and living true to yourself. In the end, however, if this movie has a message, it’s one about living and experiencing things through all five senses through tiny, everyday acts of rebellion against despair, gloom, and passiveness.

Cast: Kiki Kirin, Masatoshi Nagase, Kyara Uchida

5. Radiance (光), 2017

“Radiance” is something of an elegant distillation and refinement of the various themes that Naomi Kawase has experimented with in the past. It once again has those familiar quasi-autobiographical elements in the form of the character of Masaya, who is a talented photographer, mixed in with themes related to poor health, which are present in the form of Masaya slowly going blind. Additionally, the movie shines a light on family tragedies by having the movie’s second main character, Misako, deal with the death of her father and her mother’s dementia. Ultimately, however, the radiant imagery and brilliant vistas that serve as the background of the movie are the heroes here, showing Naomi Kawase’s love for the art of filmmaking while also delivering a touching, dramatic story that could not be improved upon.

Cast: Masatoshi Nagase, Ayame Misaki, Misuzu Kanno

6. Comes Morning (朝が来る), 2020

“Comes Morning,” set for release this summer just in time for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, is based on the 2015 novel by Mizuki Tsujimura, which follows the life of a couple who have decided to adopt a child after years of fertility treatments. But, six years later, they are subjected to threatening messages from a woman claiming to be their child’s birth mother and trying to extort money from the couple. An exploration of what “family” means to people, and a look into the sacrifices we make for our loved ones is a theme explored at large in the film — and perhaps, a well-thought-out prelude to the essence of what drives millions of athletes across the globe to fight for Olympic glory.

Cast: Hiromi Nagasaku, Arata Iura, Aju Makita, Miyoko Asada

As many of Kawase’s works have shown this far, the base of every story worth sharing with the world is our authentic existence, the relationships that shape who we are today, and the passion we invest in making our dreams come true. Is there a better fit for someone to record the Games that encompass all these themes? Certainly not.

Text by Cezary Strusiewicz

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