Japanese Female Filmmakers:
The Unexplored Side of the Coin.
Kristina Gomez Pereira
Bachelor's degree in Audiovisual Communications
Film and Television Maker
University of Chile
In the last decade Japan's film industry has experienced a rise in the number of female
filmmakers that are active within the field. Even though the international concern with The
New Japanese Cinema has grown it hasn't been the same for the Female New Cinema. The
amount of information and analysis of the cinema made by contemporary female directors
is minor compared to the importance given to male-made films. The development of this
research has been encouraged by the fact that there is a side of Japanese contemporary
cinema that we do not comprehend clearly thanks to the lack of resources. This project aims
to understand the characteristics and particularities that the new female cinema presents and
how they converge or diverge with the rest of the industry. By taking into account themes,
styles and image representations inside female director's movies we look forward to
understanding both sides of the coin and leveling the field of Japanese contemporary
Key Words: Japanese contemporary cinema, female directors, film industry, movie
New Japanese Cinema is a term that has been frequently used for a long time. Ever
since 1960 the industry has used this same title referring to all the movies that are
contemporary to their time, but lately it has acquired a new meaning and significance.
Many books and scholars have tried to define this new cinema, some according to
its most important representatives and others from a thematic point of view. In their book
"Midnight Eye Guide to Japanese Cinema" Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp try to gather the
new filmmakers from contemporary Japan cinema and, while analyzing their most
important movies, try to give the movement a list of its most important representatives. On
the other hand, Isolde Standish in her book "A New History of Japanese Cinema" tries to
analyze the movement not by their directors, but by their thematic similarities. She states
that this new cinema rebels against past structures and has a clear tendency to show
extreme violence, so much so that it goes beyond a social or political statement turning into
mere spectacle. Violence, sex and a sense of nihilism reign over these movies. "No one is
saved and no apparent heroes exist; all are damaged individuals existing as global drifters
lacking any geographical or emotional sense of connectedness"1
There's usually some confusion regarding this New Japanese Cinema and the
Japanese New Wave, the last one referring to the movement represented by independent
filmmakers such as Nagisa Oshima, Shindo Kaneto and Imamura Shohei who opposed the
classical filmmakers such as Ozu and Mizoguchi and started a new type of cinema in the
60's. This movement, that lasted no more than a decade, has been taken as a reference to
address the new cinema that is being made in Japan nowadays. The term "Japanese New
New Wave" has been used with the purpose of gathering the contemporary filmmakers
under one category. Even if the name might not seem appropriate, the need to define what
is happening nowadays in Japanese cinema certainly is. There is a whole new wave of
directors that are making new and different movies that are in need of analysis and close
Though with some variations, we are sure to find several names repeat in each one
of these books. All the authors agree that filmmakers such as Takeshi "Beat" Kitano,
Takeshi Miike and Kurosawa Kiyoshi are the main names nowadays in Japan. Kore'eda
Hirokazu is also usually mentioned in these analyses though in a different line of cinema.
We can find a lot written about the subject with many different opinions, but there is
one thing that is missing from the scholar's books: women. To say that there is no mention
of female filmmakers in the field would be a lie but it is clear that the amount of attention
given to the subject is minimal compared to the rest. Female filmmakers are usually
addressed as a chapter in these books or as a reference acknowledging their existence, but
there is no book in the English speaking publishing world that is dedicated 100% to the
subject. A while ago this would seem understandable given the fact that Japan (and the rest
1 STANDISH, Isolde 2005, A New History of Japanese Cinema: A Century of Narrative Film, Continuum,
New York. p. 330
of the world as well) has always seen a small amount of female directors in history, but
currently it has become a movement on the rise.
Though the lack of information seems to indicate the contrary, female directors in
Japan go as far as the late 1930's. The first female Japanese director was Tazuko Sakane,
she did her first film in 1936 called "Hatsu Sugata" (no prints survive). The one considered
a pioneer in the matter is Tanaka Kinuyo thanks to the six films she directed between 1953
and 1962. She was also a well-known actress that was pictured in many of Mizoguchi's
famous movies. However, there was no real acceptance for female filmmakers until the
80's. The major film studios had a very strict hierarchical structure that presented as a
barrier to any women that wanted to enter the industry. Most of the female directors before
the 80's were previous actresses, meaning people that were already inside the industry.
Ever since 1980 the industry began to change. While Japan cinema was going
through what some people call "a dark age" the industry was collapsing and so it opened to
new ways of production. There was also a rise in women taking over roles behind cameras.
All this added to the fact that there was a technological revolution that allowed for non-
professional people to get easier access to cameras and production equipment; the
diversification of directors was only natural. There was no need to be a part of a big
industry to make a movie anymore.
There has been, what Jasper Sharp calls a "raising tide of women filmmakers in the
Japanese Cinema Industry [that] should rightly be regarded among its most significant
developments of the past decade"2 This subject has been noted in Japan and around the
world thanks to the many film festivals that dedicate themselves to making this new cinema
known. Festivals such as Frankfurt's Nippon Connection Festival and London's Raindance
Film Festival have taken this topic into account.
With all this progress it comes as strange that, with the existence of so many authors
that try their best to define and shape the New Japanese Cinema, there is not an
international concern in shaping or at least understanding the Female New Japanese
If you want to say
something about Japan, you have to focus on
women [...] A focus on women can reveal most of
Japan's inner tensions and contradictions.3
2 SHARP, Jasper 2009, Women who love to shoot: A rising tide of women film directors in Japan gets festival
3 DESSER, David 1988, Eros Plus Massacre: an introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema, Indiana
University Press, Indianapolis. p. 108
In her debut movie "Kakera: A Piece of Our Life" (2009) the director Ando
Momoko explores the subject of a relationship between two women. Her film was
something of a shock for the audiences. She tries to break the idealistic image that some
men have about women and lesbianism in general. Ando deliberately included scenes that
showed a different side of women, for example we see the protagonist sitting
uncomfortably on the toilet and also having trouble with the unexpected appearance of her
menstrual cycle. She makes an effort to create a more realistic representation of femininity
and to break down some of the myths that are usually portrayed in Japanese cinema. In an
interview she said: "As a female director, what's the point in trying to copy exactly what
men do, or trying to masquerade as a male director? We should try and make the type of
films that men can't make... I am able to make this sort of film because I am female."4
Ando Momoko is just one example among many others that seem to portray a type
of fiction cinema that is different to what we have seen before in Japan. This is yet an
unexplored subject that has much to be discovered and analyzed. Within the boom of
female filmmakers from the last 20 years, what is there to be found?
What kind of cinema are these contemporary female authors making? What themes
are they concentrating on? Can they just be discarded as an appendix to the New Japanese
Cinema or is their work a completely different movement? Whenever the subject of New
Japanese Cinema is discussed, can we really say we are including this cinema? Is there
some homogeneity to the films women are making?
These and many other questions remain unanswered. We are denying ourselves the
possibility of understanding this part of the cinema that is currently being done in Japan by
not taking an interest in it. There's a whole point of view that we are missing as we keep
selecting some of the filmmakers as representatives of Japan Cinema and disregarding
others. If we take the time to understand this feminine filmmaker's cinema and count them
as a factor in the equation, will we find a whole new result or just another factor?
We can point many characteristics in this cinema that have not yet been explored.
For example, is violence an important subject for female filmmakers? While we find many
authors that agree that violence is a theme that has a strong relevance in contemporary
Japanese cinema, will we find this is also the case for female filmmakers? Or are there new
subjects and themes that have been absent from Japanese cinema history so far?
Themes and subjects are just one topic. We can also refer to cinematographic
language and director's style. Is their style coherent with the one we find in main
representatives such as Kitano Takeshi and Kurosawa Kiyoshi? But more important than
that, is their style consistent with each other's? We won't know if they come together as a
cohesive cinema or if it is wrong to assume we can trace a defining line around their
movies until we make efforts to understand them.
4 SHARP, Jasper 2010, Interview with Momoko Ando, 29 March, Midnight Eye: Visions of Japanese Cinema,
viewed 17 December 2011, <http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/momoko_ando.shtml>
Another interesting thing to look at is the representation of society they make in
their movies. Is the way Japan defines itself through their male directors in agreement with
the female ones? For example, one main representation that has always been given special
attention is the image of women. The subject of women in Japanese Cinema has always
been an important topic that has been incessantly discussed. Ever since the early days of
Japanese cinema women have been the protagonists to an astonishing amount of movies.
So much so that several of the most famous Japanese directors have been denoted as
"feminist" for concentrating on the image of women along their careers5. Adam Bingman
puts it very clearly in one of his magazine articles "it is nonetheless true that films about
women have predominated throughout Japanese cinema, about women but made by men.
Whatever their respective insights or attitudes, the fact remained that women in Japanese
films were almost always created, and certainly looked at, by men"6
Can we find a different kind of women among the female filmmakers? We can say
for sure that depending on each person we find different perspectives and opinions. This
also applies to the way women define themselves. While the male representation of women
is just as valid and important, it's just one side of the coin. We must try to understand the
image of women in both sides to be able to gain a complete knowledge of the field. To
identify if women are giving us a new and different representation of themselves that
breaks with all the assumed stereotypes we need to immerse ourselves in their cinema.
All these subjects mentioned above are just a few of the many topics and elements
that remain inside the female filmmaker's movies ready to be considered. There's no way
of knowing what we'll find and what we'll discover is missing until we take them into
This research wants to take advantage of this unexplored topic to gain more
knowledge about cinema and about Japan in general. Now that a female perspective has
gained clear presence in the national Japan Cinema it is necessary to explore it and learn
everything we can from it. Only in this way we'll be able to say that we understand the
entirety of Japanese cinema. We just need to look and we are surely to find many things
that will surprise us.
There is an obvious lack of information on the subject of Japanese female
filmmakers. The thematic is clearly unexplored and though we can surely find sketches
about it in some texts, thanks to the rapid rising in the amount of women in the Japanese
cinematic industry, the information has grown small. The purpose of this research is to take
a step towards leveling the field between both sides of the coin.
5 This is true for artists such as Mizoguchi Kenji, Naruse Mikio and Kinoshita Keisuke from the golden age
of Japanese cinema; as well as Imamura Shohei from the New Wave. Even nowadays Koreeda Hirokazu has
been put into this category from time to time.
6 BINGHAM, Adam 2010, Original Visions: Female Directors in Contemporary Japanese Cinema,
CineAction Magazine, vol. 81, p. 56
Besides entering an unexplored field, this research also has other main points. There
are still many myths and misinformation about Japan in the western world. The subject of
Japanese film in general is only known partially in this side of the world. It is true that
names such as Kurosawa Akira and Ozu Yosujiro are well known, as well as gender
cinema; for example Japanese terror has become a gender of cult among many young
people. Anime and manga are another example of cultural products that have also become a
boom in the western world, but this only helps building an image of Japan based on stories
that fail to cover the entire reality of the Japanese society. There's much more to Japan than
terror and samurais.
This is particularly true in the aspect of Japanese women. There seems to be an
image of Japan as a misogynistic culture that has large gender inequality where women
play an insignificant role in society. As much as one could argue that there was a time when
this was true, it was the same for the rest of the world. Japan is also going through a
transformation where women are taking action and stepping into important roles. Cinema is
also one of those fields. The subject of Japanese female filmmakers, even the mere existent
of them, is unheard of in the west outside of intellectual circles. There is a new image of
women reflected in these movies that distances itself from Ozu's accepting and
uncomplaining women. We can find powerful and independent women that, while still
being proud of their Japanese identity, are also making themselves important. This is the
type of women the western world needs to see.
There is a need to make this subject known that derives from the same necessity of
understanding our own world and bringing down misconceptions of other cultures. By
understanding the female perspective of Japanese cinema we can take another step towards
achieving a more complete understanding of Japan's cultural products and Japan itself.
Japan has a lot to offer when it comes to quality cultural products. If we don't take
little steps towards making those reach the world, then we will never overcome the barriers
that are still in place. Culture is the most powerful tool we have when it comes to
understanding others; we need to use it.
Construct a map of the fiction cinema that is being made nowadays by Japanese
female filmmakers including various characteristics and elements from the directors and
-Develop a bibliographical study of Japanese female filmmakers history that
concentrates on fiction films for the last 20 years.
-Compose a filmography list of the main films directed by females in the last 20
-Create an analysis of themes, motifs and symbols in relation with the style of each
-Generate a profile that combines all the main characteristics of the cinema in
-Build a comparison between the female cinema and the main Japanese cinema that
focuses on the convergence and divergence among both.
The project looks forward to understanding a new cinema that hasn't been explored
in dept until now. The research hopes to find the unique characteristics that can define the
cinema that is being done by women nowadays. We expect to uncover the differences that
this cinema might have with the one being done by male filmmakers, but always opened to
understanding its similarities as well.
We anticipate that the differences that can be seen at first sight by watching the
movies go deeper and become defining to this cinema. We hope to find new images,
themes and styles that we can gather and analyze to understand female-made cinema as a
movement of it's own.
We expect to discover a new and original image of woman defined by women that
will help us bring together both sides of the coin and achieve a more complete
understanding of the field.
Instead of presenting this group of movies as a chapter of something bigger we hope
to define it as a movement on itself. It is within our expectations to bring to light a different
cinema with distinctive content, form and operation.
Review of the Literature
While explorations of individual female Japanese directors are clearly not missing
from the field of film analysis and criticism, the initiative of gathering these artists and
comparing their work and themes has not been a tendency so far. Some of the directors
have expressed that they don't understand the point of looking at their work from a gender
perspective "They'd rather be known simply as directors than "women directors""7
Even if this is the case, there's no denying that this phenomenon is worthy of deeper
analysis. The work we create as humans is undoubtedly influenced by whom we are. Our
gender, by being part of our self, translates into our creation, whether we want it or not.
One author has made an initiative to look at this subject as a whole. The lecturer and
writer on film Adam Bingham addresses the concept in one of his publications. Bingham
states that the female filmmakers from the last decade are not openly concerned with
7 SHARP, Jasper 2009. Interview with Yuki Tanada, 25 October, Midnight Eye: Visions of Japanese Cinema,
viewed 17 December 2011, <http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/yuki_tanada.shtml>
showing images of womanhood itself. They have an equal interest in masculinity and
femininity both, but it is exactly because of this reason that their work becomes interesting.
The fact that they don't represent the image of women as male directors have done it so far
translates into the creation of a new type of film that has evolved ever since the times of
Mizoguchi. "Beside contemporary male images of women, those images offered by women
tell a different story, the more interesting for not being overtly linked with, and limited to,
questions of feminism and femininity."8
To prove his point Bingham goes on to quickly review some of those artists that
have made an impression in Japanese cinema so far.
One of the main figures that has become important is Kawase Naomi. Ever since
she won the Camera d'Or for best new director in Cannes in 1997 for her movie "Suzaku"
(1997) she has gained popularity. Most of her work consists of documentaries but she has
directed fiction films as well. Keiko Mcdonald in her book "Reading a Japanese Film"
notes that Kawase works constantly with the theme of family. Mixed with autobiographical
elements she contemplates the fundamental problems of family. She approaches the subject
not by confrontation but by peacefully reflecting about it. Mcdonald compares her style
with Ozu's, as they both offer the audience space for reflection, but Kawase values
spontaneity where Ozu seeks to eliminate any asymmetry. Her fiction movies all have a
documentary style to them that invite us to think about what's important in life.
Another director is Tanada Yuki. In her title "Moon and Cherry" (2004) she
explores the theme of sexuality and how women openly deal with it. Jasper Sharp denotes
how in Tanada's movies she brings forward a whole new way of defining the male-female
relationships9. While escaping society's stereotypes Tanada's women are usually refusing
to comply with what is expected of them. Women are individuals on their own that have a
place that is not necessarily where society wishes to put them.
Also an important figure that has achieved recognition is Ogigami Naoko. Her
films, such as "Yoshino's Barber Shop" (2004) and "Glasses" (2007) usually start with the
arrival of a new character to a closed and hermetic environment and while the story
develops we see the influence they both have on each other. As Adam Bingham notices it,
as the story progresses the character becomes one with the place and its people, restoring
the balance that was broken with the arrival and becoming a part of a new family. This
figure of family that is created in Ogigami's movies opposes the traditional structures of
Japanese society and the view of family that has been represented so many times in movies.
Nishikawa Miwa has undoubtedly become a prominent figure after being the first
female director to ever receive the Kinema Junpo Best Film prize for her film "Dear
Doctor" (2009). Bingham finds that one of the main concerns in Nishikawa's cinema is
8 BINGHAM, Adam 2010, Original Visions: Female Directors in Contemporary Japanese Cinema,
CineAction Magazine, vol. 81, p. 57
9 SHARP, Jasper 2009, Interview with Yuki Tanada, 25 October, Midnight Eye: Visions of Japanese Cinema,
viewed 17 December 2011, <http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/yuki_tanada.shtml>
how the masculine identity is predicated on women. Nishikawa's men seem to be defined
as from their relationship to women. There's a duality in her films that becomes a very
important theme and that defines the story as a whole.
While a much more elaborate examination is obligatory to fully comprehend this
female-made cinema, a first sight is enough to realize there's much new and unexplored in
these films. The authors do not necessarily offer big statements about Japan or femininity,
but they offer stories and themes that seem to outline a new Japanese cinema. These
filmmakers are working from within this industry to create their own path; one we certainly
wish to walk with them.
The methodology that has been selected for the present investigation focuses on
film analysis of the director's work. To support this, the reading of different texts such as
books, movie reviews, biographies and author's interviews among any others that might
address the subject will also be incorporated.
a. Bibliographical analysis of texts that address the subject of Japanese women
filmmakers that have directed fiction films in the last 20 years.
(*) This phase will extend throughout the whole research. The analysis of texts will
be constant from start to finish, as some of the texts require to be read before, during
or after the viewing of the movies.
b. Video compilation of the necessary visual material and viewing of the same.
c. Elaborate a criteria for the selection of a sample group of no more than 20 directors
according to the previous bibliographical study that will act as the main body of this
d. Engage a thorough analysis of the themes, motifs and symbols in relation to their
cinematographic style in each of the director's work creating a comprehensive
profile of each.
e. Gathering the profiles of each director and generating a comprehensive picture of
female Japanese cinema while aiming towards a possible definition of a movement.
f. Comparing the results from the obtained profile with the cinema already in
existence in the contemporary industry of Japan, taking into account differences and
g. Elaborate a compiling text that envelops all the analyzed subjects and their final
The following timetable is formatted for an 18 months research period. If the amount of
times varies the timetable will be proportionately readjusted.
10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18
-DESSER, David 1988, Eros Plus Massacre: an introduction to the Japanese New Wave
Cinema, Indiana University Press, Indianapolis.
-MCDONALD, Keiko 2006, Reading a Japanese Film: cinema in context, University of
Hawai'i Press, Honolulu.
-SCHILLING, Mark 1999, Contemporary Japanese Film, Weatherhill, New York.
-STANDISH, Isolde 2005, A New History of Japanese Cinema: A Century of Narrative
Film, Continuum, New York.
-BURCH, Noel 1979, To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese
Cinema, University of California Press, Berkeley.
-MELLEN, Joan 1976, The Waves at Genji's Door, Pantheon Books, New York.
-MES, Tom & JASPER, Sharp 2005, The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film,
Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley.
-SHARP, Jasper 2009, Women who love to shoot: A rising tide of women film directors in
Japan gets festival treatment, 18 September, The Japan Times Online, viewed 13 January
2012. < http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/ff20090918r1.html>
-SHARP, Jasper 2010, Interview with Momoko Ando, 29 March, Midnight Eye: Visions of
Japanese Cinema, viewed 17 December 2011,
-SHARP, Jasper 2009, Interview with Yuki Tanada, 25 October, Midnight Eye: Visions of
Japanese Cinema, viewed 17 December 2011,
-LANG, Doris 2011, Interview with Ogigami Naoko. 28 January, Film International,
viewed 17 December 2011. <http://filmint.nu/?p=348>
-SELAVY, Virginie 2009, Interview with Sachi Hamano. 1 December, Electric Sheep: a
deviant view of Cinema, viewed 17 december 2011,
-BAILEY, Michelle 2010, The Japanese Gender Issue, June, Cine Vue, viewed 24 January
-BINGHAM, Adam 2010, Original Visions: Female Directors in Contemporary Japanese
Cinema, CineAction Magazine, vol. 81, pp. 56-61.