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Female Directors Enter the Movie Scene

October 6, 1998

Tomoko Fujiwara is one of a rising group of women directors. (Jiji Press)

Japanese women have begun to make their presence felt in yet another field that had been dominated by men: film directing. With the advancement of independent productions and other new players in Japan's movie industry, female directors are flowering. Some have won film prizes, both within Japan and abroad. Many young women are looking to follow in their footsteps, and their presence may rejuvenate the Japanese film world in the coming years.

Picking up Film Awards
It was in the area of documentaries that female directors first began to stand out in Japan. Most recently in this genre, Tomoko Fujiwara (66) snared numerous domestic film awards in 1997 for her Ruizu Sono Tabidachi (Louise: Her Departure on a Journey). The film recounts the life of Ruizu (Louise) Ito, a social activist whose parents were killed in 1923 by the Japanese army after being charged as anarchists. It was highly acclaimed for its lively portrayal of Ito despite relying almost exclusively on reminiscences gathered after her death from her family and others who had known her.

Women have had greater difficulty working their way up to directorship in the world of fictional movies, where a director must orchestrate a much larger staff of dozens or even hundreds of people. In the past few years, however, several women have been making headway in this field. Most notable is Naomi Kawase (29), whose Moe no Suzaku (The God Suzaku) captured the Camera d'Or--awarded to the best first feature--at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. Set in a lonely mountain village in Japan, the movie depicts a family's attempts to deal with isolation and the incestuous affairs within it. With this film Kawase became the first Japanese female director to gain international acclaim.

Also in 1997, Hisako Matsui (52) received the best new director award at a film festival held by the Japan Film Makers Association, for Yukie, a love story about a Japanese woman with Alzheimer's disease and her American husband. Perhaps these and other emerging female directors will lead the way to a new age of movie making.

Women Advancing in the Movie Industry
The number of women aspiring to become directors is increasing. The Japan School of Moving Images--chaired by Shohei Imamura, director of Unagi (The Eel) and two-time winner of the Palme d'Or, Cannes' top prize--accepts a maximum of 160 new enrollees each year. In the past only about 10% of the students were women, but in the last two to three years their share has shot up to about 40%. More independently produced films, including many shot cheaply on video, are being directed by women, too. When a video-distributing company held its first film festival in 1997, some 30% of the 730 entries were presented by women.

This increase in female directors and director-hopefuls is due to women's advancement in society and also to fundamental changes in the film industry. In the 1960s the industry was at the peak of a boom, and each major film company had plenty of studios and staff members. Movie making was a strictly hierarchical, male-dominated business, and no assistant director could hope to become a director without putting in more than 10 years of work. The industry then began to decline, and movie companies had to downscale their operations. Independent productions moved to the fore, and musicians, celebrities, and other members of the younger generation began to direct films. This liberalization of the movie-making business also improved the opportunities for women.

At present, only 15 of the approximately 500 directors who are members of the Directors Guild of Japan are women. The number is slowly growing, though, and female directors are gradually gaining a stronghold in the movie industry.

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Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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