Japanese film history doesn’t exactly teem with women filmmakers, at least not until the turn of the 21st century. Yet, as the careers of pioneering filmmakers like Tazuko Sakane (1904-1975) and Kinuyo Tanaka (1909-1977) demonstrate, women began to play a crucial role in the industry even as their numbers remained small. With its latest film series, 21st Century Japan: Films from 2001 to 2020, New York’s Japan Society aims to celebrate the range of Japanese narrative films made in the last 20 years. Perhaps most importantly, the comprehensive series also highlights some of the most remarkable contemporary women filmmakers currently active in the country.

From Still the Water (2014), dir. Naomi Kawase

Of course, no such selection could exclude Naomi Kawase, perhaps the most iconic and celebrated Japanese woman director. A Cannes habitué, Kawase has emerged as a prolific documentarian, one who often turns her inquisitive gaze towards her own family traumas. In subsequent fictional works, Kawase has situated humanity’s turmoil within the Japanese natural landscape, occasionally brushing on shamanism, such as in Still the Water (2014), in which a young couple grapples with mortality against the expansive backdrop of Amami Ōshima. Similarly conscious of how geography impacts social dynamics, Naoko Ogigami sets her amusing moral comedy Yoshino’s Barber Shop (2004) in a small countryside village. Amid an evocative landscape, Ogigami demonstrates modernity’s clash with Japanese cultural mores when a newly transferred Tokyo boy threatens the village’s traditions with his nonconformist haircut.

Such issues of societal control abound in 21st Century Japan, particularly in the films of Mika Ninagawa and Yuki Tanada. Each presents transgressive portraits of womanhood that sets aside the stifled visual language of the male gaze. A pop-inflected extravaganza of bold colors and compositions, Ninagawa’s Sakuran (2007) tells the story of an unconventional oiran — a high-ranking courtesan — of the Edo period. Tanada, who wrote the script of Sakuran, likewise frequently upends the expectations of how a woman should act in her own films, especially in romantic relationships. Fittingly, One Million Yen Girl (2008) follows the journey of an outspoken young woman who travels throughout Japan to both seek and flee from herself. 

From Sway (2006), dir. Miwa Nishikawa

With gender parity still a distant reality in the film industry, 21st Century Japan represents a step in the right direction. Boasting a fairly balanced selection in terms of gender, the series also showcases a wide range of styles and genres when it comes to films directed by women. Miwa Nishikawa’s Sway (2006), for instance, is a wrenching crime story exposing the frictions of fraternal affection while Our House (2017), the debut film of Yui Kiyohara, explores the complexity of a domestic space through an uncanny lens. While the work of women directors has historically been expected to reflect “feminine” ideals imposed by society, these titles attest to a new future on the horizon, one where the label of “women director” might finally become meaningless.

21st Century Japan: Films From 2001-2020 streams February 5–25 through Japan Society. The series is co-presented by Japan Society and the Agency for Cultural Affairs in collaboration with Visual Industry Promotion Organization.

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Ren Scateni

Ren Scateni is a writer, curator, and programmer. They mostly write about the cinema of Japan and other East Asian countries for various publications, including MUBI Notebook, Art Review, and Sight &...