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Cannes 2011: Naomi Kawase

In our last report from the French film festival we talk to the Japanese filmmaker about her new film Hanezu, which is steeped in the legends and landscape of the Nara Region in Japan

Despite having been the youngest winner of Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Camera D’Or in 1997, the work of Japanese filmmaker Naomi Kawase is often overlooked. Steeped in the history, landscape and legends of Japan her films are slow-paced, poetic depictions of tragedy and loss and humankind’s connection to the natural world.

Her latest film Hanezu, which showed in competition at Cannes this year, draws on the ancient Japanese poems of the Manyoshu to tell the story of a woman torn between two men. It’s set in the historic Nara Region, the place where the country’s oldest capital once stood and also the birthplace of the director. Naomi Kawase spoke to Dazed about the origins of the film, the meaning of the title and her unique approach to working with actors.    

Dazed Digital: Can you tell us more about this story?
Naomi Kawase:
This story happened 1300 years ago and I took the thread from this and pulled it up to today and had the same story happen again today.

DD: Is the film a criticism of the characters or the situation they find themselves in?
Naomi Kawase:
It’s neither a comment nor criticism, it’s just evidence. We don’t always do things that are right, we sometimes repeat the wrong things, take the wrong path. It’s something that happens and we think: why does that happen again? It doesn’t help to hide it, you have to live with it. These things have happened and will happen again.

DD: Where does the title of the film come from?
Naomi Kawase:
Hanezu is a very old word which was used in the Manyoshu compilation of poems and it means red, but it’s a special red, it’s a vanishing red and red that fades away. It’s compared to the evolving of feelings. In this poem the vanishing red is compared to the vanishing of feelings and the feelings you can have towards somebody.

DD: You invited the actors to the region a month before shooting to get them used to the location. What did they do during that month? And how did that experience affect their performances?
Naomi Kawase:
They experimented with the life that they were living in the film. They learnt how to make things by themselves, either dyeing material or carving. They would visit the shrine and be a member of the community and people in the street would know them and say hello. And it’s inside this type of new relationship that they would start to improvise for the film. I don’t ask them to play the part I ask them to live it.

DD: The film often focuses on the details and textures of things…
Naomi Kawase:
Of course I was very conscious of this because I was the one who was shooting, I was holding the camera myself. That’s why on the things which I felt were important I made a close-up. The gestures, the food, it is part of the beauty of living. So that was a very conscious part of this film.

DD: Your approach to filmmaking is very personal, do you worry how audiences will connect to the work?
Naomi Kawase:
Instead of being stopped by the fear of not being understood what is more important to me is the act of making the film and the hope that the people watching the film will understand the strong will with which I make the film. So I overcome this fear by doing it and believing that my wish to reach the audience will be fulfilled.