Japanese Cinema: Women on the Rise?

by Amanda Weiss for FCCJ

British film theorist Laura Mulvey put it simply: men control cinema. Her seminal 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Media,” claimed that through the united efforts of the screenwriter, director, producer, and cinematographer, filmmakers construct the movie’s “gaze.” Mulvey concluded that since men traditionally occupied all of these roles, the Hollywood system—and by extension, the film itself—is inherently patriarchal.


Thirty years have passed, and high-profile female directors have cropped up all over the world. Some of them—like Mira Nair, Sofia Coppola, and Jane Campion—have achieved euphoric critical praise in art-house circles. Others have made it big both financially and critically. Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman in history to win Best Director at the 2010 Academy Awards, overtaking the popular favorite Avatar to snatch the prize. It would seem that woman filmmakers are on the rise.


In Japan, women in film are also developing a higher profile. Budding female director Miwa Nishikawa helmed one of last year’s biggest films, Dear Doctor. Nishikawa began professionally as Hirokazu Koreeda’s assistant director, quickly graduating to director and developing a style that resonates with Japanese audiences. Dear Doctor, her third film, is a gentle human comedy starring Tsurube Shôfukutei as an affable impostor country doctor. The film’s tender humanity and sympathetic performances struck a chord, and Dear Doctor went on to be nominated for a Japanese Academy Prize.


Other notable Japanese female directors include Naoko Ogigami (Barber Yoshino), Satoko Yokohama (German + Ame), Nami Iguchi (Don't Laugh at My Romance), Yuki Tanada (One Million Yen and the Nigamushi Woman; Moon and Cherry), Naomi Kawase (The God Suzaku), Mika Ninagawa (Sakuran), and pink film director Hamano Sachi (Lily Festival). Film sections at Japanese video rental stores Dorama and Tsutaya host burgeoning female director sections, and film festivals held by the Japan Foundation herald the arrival of Japanese female directors. For Japanese woman filmmakers, is equality within reach?


Some female filmmakers envision a positive future. Yuki, who works in film planning and financing, believes more women are breaking into the upper ranks of the Japanese film industry. She notes that while Japanese women were traditionally script girls, costume designers and makeup artists, now they are entering the industry as leaders.


“In the past, it might have been hard because the film set was traditionally a male-dominated society. But now more women want to be in charge, and the situation is definitely changing. When I studied at the Tokyo University of the Arts, there were many women in the directing course. So I do believe there will be more female directors in the future.”


Miho, a director and former camera operator, is a little more pessimistic. She believes men undeniably control the Japanese film industry, and the reasons are societal in nature. “The visual world is very much a male-dominated field, and it is hard for female directors. This is because of marriage and children—men have more freedom in this kind of system.”


Film work demands weeks of travel and overtime, which means female filmmakers cannot fulfill the full-time duties required of the traditional Japanese wife/mother. Marathon hours and frequent location changes are normal operating procedure. For many, this means choosing between on-set jobs like directing/camera and off-set jobs like writing/planning. Yoriko, a screenwriter, agrees that it is difficult for women to balance work and family in Japan. “I don’t know many women on set who are married and raising children. I’m single, so it is OK for me to keep working in the film industry.”


When the conversation turns to cinematography, Yuki, Miho and Yoriko agree that women face a physical disadvantage. Before becoming a professional Director of Photography (DP), most fledgling cinematographers must pay their dues by carrying equipment and operating hefty cameras. Due to this labor aspect of camera work, it may be more difficult for women to compete.


Yuki optimistically argues that with more compact equipment and new attitudes, this might change as well. “When I was in school there were women in the cinematography and lighting courses, so I think there will also be more women in those fields in the future. For example, now there is the famous female DP Akiko Ashizawa.” (Ms. Ashizawa is a member of the Japanese Society of Cinematographers).


All three filmmakers agree on one issue, however: their favorite female director, Miwa Nishikawa. According to Miho, “I don’t usually like the work of female directors, but in her work the colors, feelings and camera work are all expressed really well.” Yoriko similarly appreciates Miwa Nishikawa’s ability to honestly depict human weakness.


Nonetheless, in looking at US and Japanese statistics, women still have a long way to go. The American Society of Cinematographers—a by-invitation only group—has less than ten female members out of a roster of over 300, while the slightly more female-friendly Directors Guild of America, which encourages its female members through task forces and minority research, lists 3,097 women out of 13,953 members in their database at http://webapps.dga.org.


Conversely, the Directors Guild of Japan had roughly 20 members out of 547 as of 2003, whereas the Japanese Society of Cinematographers has around 20 female members out of more than 400 listed on their website. Notably, younger women are entering the JSC at a rapidly increasing rate.


Despite the disheartening numbers, Yoriko holds a more egalitarian view of filmmaking in general. “I think that for everyone, regardless of whether they are a man or a woman, it is difficult to make films in Japan. You have to work hard, assemble a team, plan the film, and make it by yourself.”


Foreign Correspondent's Club of Japan Scholarship Winner 2011