A Conversation with Miwa Nishikawa

“I think that women who, in the absence of role models, lose their way and drown in this freedom…”

Not unlike most film cultures across the globe, Japan’s cinematic history has borne a significant disadvantage with the absence of a distinct female voice to influence its cultural narrative, especially in a culture that could have used a uniquely feminist perspective en mass during the late 20th century; a time of great social change and industrial advancement for the archipelago. And even though such maestros of celluloid as Ozu, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi often ingrained strong, complex female protagonists within their frames, it could be argued that each director naïvely maintained a masculine ambiance within their films regardless of the feminine tribulations inherent to each the story.

And while japan still struggles to find equality between the sexes on a myriad of social and professional issues, there are small signs that the situation is rapidly taking a foothold in the nation’s psyche. One such example is the recent success of filmmaker whose film Wild Berries won the Hiroshima native Best New Director honours at the Yokohama Film Festival in 2004 and whose latest film, the darkly comedic Dreams For Sale is garnering rave reviews both at home and on the international festival circuit.

Fletcher: Drawing from your own experience, do you think becoming a film director in Japan, as a woman, is an achievable goal?

Miwa Nishikawa: If you have what it takes to be a film director – that is, the vision and skills to make films, as well as willpower and communicative ability – it’s becoming possible now to make films as a woman in Japan. However, compared with other countries, the general film production environment, the pay you can earn and other such conditions are still incredibly tough for women.  

Speaking from my own experience, when I have a film in production there are periods of weeks on end where I only get around two to three hours of sleep a night, where just surviving and getting through my work is all that I can do, with no time for family, friends or partner. In fact, this is all I have ever experienced.

It’s so extreme and tough that among women I know in the film industry, there are overwhelmingly few who are able to balance married life and raising children with the demands of their work. As an example, considering the current industry environment, I think it would be practically impossible for a single woman with a child to be a film director or to work in a production team. At the very least, it would be impossible to put out films at the same rate as male directors. To do the “work” of a film director is possible, but the nature of the industry is such that it is impossible to do this and at the same time lead a balanced life.

F: So is there an palpable lack of female workers in the industry as a whole or have you noticed an increase in numbers? And if so, does this mean Japan’s film culture is beginning to nurture female talent?

MN: I’m sure there have been many highly talented women who have worked in areas such as procurement, advertising and staging in the past.

Ten or so years ago, the number of women in film production would have been less than 1 in 10, but now the numbers have increased to around 3 or 4 in 10. Even in technical areas characterized by grueling physical work, such as cinematography and lighting, young female staff are on the increase, and they’re incredibly reliable. Especially because it’s such demanding work, the women who continue to work in film production know this and are prepared for it. My impression is that these women are incredibly smart, passionate about their work, and good at communicating – in short, they are highly capable individuals.

Until now, there haven’t really been any films by female auteurs that have emerged from the Japanese film industry, so that sensibility and those talents themselves are fresh, which is something I think female filmmakers are conscious of. But in order for women to be able to make their way in the film industry long-term, I think there needs to be changes in the environment and in the stability that the industry can offer.

F: You mentioned that there have yet to be any female auteurs in Japanese film. If that’s the case were you creatively influenced from other fields or did you find influences from within film itself?

MN: In the film industry, directors Sidney Lumet and Kawashima Yuzo. In literature, Osamu Dazai. And my older brother, who gave me the opportunity to fall in love with film.

F: Dreams for Sale explores some of the darker aspects of relationships, domestic abuse and depression? Do you think these issues are being addressed in Japanese society? Or is there a need to maintain awareness and create better support for victims and sufferers?

MN: At the very least, I think all of these are currently problems in Japanese society. This film is veritably a full-colour portrayal of the barriers and repression experienced by women living in present-day Japan. It’s less the product of my imagination than the product of my observations and experience throughout my life so far. I don’t know that the film constitutes any kind of support strategy in itself, but I hope that the film helps to dissolve people’s deeply ingrained preconceptions and gives them an opportunity to look at these kinds of problems from a new angle.

F: Do you think the film is specific to Japanese or universal in its subject?

MN: Of course the setting is incredibly realistic for Japanese people, but I must admit I am also curious about how overseas audiences will respond.

As far as I am aware, the choices and possibilities for women’s lives only really began to grow from the beginning of the 20th century in most countries. So I think that women who, in the absence of role models, lose their way and drown in this freedom – which has such a short history – probably exist the world over. There are probably societies out there that have already overcome these hurdles – I’d like the opportunity to speak with people from different societies and hear their views.

F: What has been the reaction to the film screening at different festivals?

MN: The film drew quite a big crowd at the Toronto Film Festival. There was trouble with the projector and the screening stopped 20 minutes before the end. It took the technical staff 20, 30 minutes to fix the film, but even so the majority of the audience waited in the cinema to see the end, which made a big impression on me.

F: Is there anything you’d like say to Australian audiences about to watch your film?

MN: This will be the first time for me to see one of my films screened in Australia, which is incredibly exciting for me. How will people respond to the female characters? How will they respond to the Japanese settings and scenery? I’m interested in hearing what people think. I hope you’ll come and see the film!

F: And finally, for audiences coming to see Dreams For Sale, was there a specific message you wanted to convey with this film?

MN: I’m sorry… I worked on this film for three years with barely any time to sleep. Please don’t make me answer this question, as it saddens me to have to package this experience up into one short simple message. I just hope that this film inspires whoever sees it to think in their own way about what it means to live as a woman, and what it means to live with a woman, and search for their own conclusions.

    J. Fletcher

    Based in Sydney, Australia. Entertainment Journalist. Critic. Photographer. Coffee Snob. Not necessarily in that order.

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