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Japanese #womeninfilm & Cathy Munroe Hotes

Cathy Munroe Hotes
I've wanted to know more about Japanese women filmmakers and women's film festivals, for ages. Like Korean women filmmakers and women's festivals, they're just across the Pacific/ Te Moana Nui a Kiwa. So I was delighted to find Cathy Munroe Hotes' Japanese Women Behind the Scenes wiki. This rich, fascinating resource offers information about Japanese women writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, art directors, continuity editors, animators, editors, experimental filmmakers and more. I was even more delighted when Cathy agreed to answer some questions.

Where I can, I've linked each woman she mentions to her page on Cathy's website. For the few who don't have a page there, I've linked to their website or another online resource.

How did your study of Japanese women directors begin? 

I have always had an interest in women directors.  In my native Canada, I was drawn to directors like Patricia Rozema (I’ve Heard the Mermaid Singing, Mansfield Park, Into the Forest) and the documentary director Alanis Obomsawin (Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, People of the Kattawapiskak River, Trick or Treaty?).  

I started Nishikata Film Review when I was living in Tokyo in 2006.  The blog initially did not have any focus at all, but over the years I have become known for my reviews of independent animators and women filmmakers.  The focus on animation came about because I discovered that really amazing alternative animation films were being made in Japan and no one was writing about them in English.  The focus on women came about because of Nippon Connection.  I first began going to the festival as a blogger in 2008, a year after my family and I moved to Germany [where Cathy teaches at the University of Marburg].  As it is the largest Japanese film festival in the world, the choice of films there is overwhelming, so one year I decided to watch all the films by women.  There were actually many films that year and I enjoyed them very much.  I also noticed at Nippon Connection that women film critics are few and far between – particularly those who have a focus on East Asian film.  One notable exception is Maggie Lee, the chief Asia film critic at Variety.  

For my academic research, I had been making filmographies of animators and filmmakers for years.  I decided to start posting them online, together with links to articles and related websites, in order to share the information that I had gathered and to encourage other people with similar interests to contribute.  Reliable information on independent filmmakers tends to be hard to find, so I wanted to make it easier for both fans and researchers to learn more about a woman filmmaker they may have just discovered.  At the moment there are a couple of people adding information to the site, but I would love to have more people participating.

Is there a strong tradition of women's filmmaking in Japan? Or several traditions?

Tazuko Sakane 坂根田鶴子 1904 – 1975
It took a long time for women to become directors in Japan because of the patriarchal, hierarchical structure of Japanese studios.  The two earliest women filmmakers, Tazuko Sakane and Kinuyo Tanaka, would likely not have had a chance to be directors if they hadn’t had the support of Kenji Mizoguchi.  Unfortunately, most of Sakane’s works are no longer extant, and Tanaka’s works are difficult to see apart from Love Letter (1953).

Kinuyo Tanaka 田中絹代1909 – 1977
That being said however, women audiences have always played an important role in the kind of films that the studios made.  From the 1920 until the 1960s the Josei eiga (Women’s Film) was the mainstay of the Japanese film industry – with such sub-genres as the haha-mono (films about mothers), tsuma-mono (films about women). Mikio Naruse is most renowned director of this genre, and many of his films were based on novels by women such as Fumiko Hayashi. 

Yoko Mizuki 水木洋子 1910 – 2002
During the classical Japanese film period, there were also some successful female screenwriters such as Yoko Mizuki (Kwaidan, Sound of the Mountain), Sumie Tanaka (Repast, Late Chrysanthemums, Flowing), and Natto Wada, who collaborated exclusively with her husband Kon Ichikawa (The Burmese Harp, Fires on the Plain, etc.).  Women worked behind the scenes as script supervisors and production managers (the most famous of these being Akira Kurosawa’s production manager Teruyo Nogami), costume and makeup and so on.

Shimako Sato 佐藤嗣麻子 b. 1964
These days there are many women directors making mainstream film and television.  For example, Shimako Sato is known for her hit TV and movie franchise Unfair which features a hard-boiled female police detective played by Ryoko Shinohara.  There are also a number of women whose films have become favourites at international festivals such as Naomi Kawase, Miwa Nishikawa, Yuki Tanada, Naoko Ogigami, Mipo O and Momoko Ando.  

Hitomi Kamanaka 鎌仲 ひとみ b. 1958
One of the areas where women have had the strongest tradition is in documentary filmmaking.  I highly recommend the films of Hitomi Kamanaka, who is known for her films about nuclear power and the effects of radiation, and Yong-hi Yang, who has made some moving films about her family in North Korea.  (Learn more: Documentary Filmmakers Page)

What's different about Japanese women writers and directors compared with other parts of the world? 

I haven’t done any comparative research, so I really can’t say.  Most filmmakers working in Japan today have been so film school, although many are self-taught.  Women have long played a role in the animation industry, usually as in-betweeners or key animators (there are many women working behind the scenes at the popular Studio Ghibli, for example), but it has only been in recent decades that they have started to direct.  There are also a number of husband and wife teams who have been very successful.  The most famous animation couple in Japan is the late Renzō Kinoshita and his wife Sayoko Kinoshita.  In addition to their important works, such as their animated documentary about the day the bomb went off in Hiroshima Pica-don (1978), they founded ASIFA JAPAN and the Hiroshima International Animation Festival.  Since Renzō Kinoshita’s death in 1997, Sayoko has continued to run both ASIFA JAPAN and the festival.  At last year’s festival (it’s biannual), I noticed that about 75% of the current cohort of students at Japan’s top animation schools are women, so I am excited about the future prospects for women in animation.  

Saki Muramoto
Some names to watch out for include Akino Kondoh, Saori Shiroki, Shishi Yamazaki, Saki Muramoto, Mari Miyazawa, and Mika Seike.  There are also two terrific young Chinese women making animation in Japan: Yuanyuan Hu and Yangtong Zhu.

What about women producers? Are they more likely to produce men's work than women's?

At Nippon Connection 2009 there was a podium discussion about women in the film industry.  At this event the producer Yukie Kito and film promoter Kayoko Nakanishi said that while big name women directors have been scarce in Japan, in recent decades women have come to dominate behind the scenes.  They both had the impression that there were more women than men working as producers and promoters in Japan.   Kito’s rationale for this was the fact that women make up more than 70% of film audiences, which would also explain so many romantic comedies and dramas are produced every year in Japan.  I would add that research has shown that women in Japan are more likely than men to go the cinema.  Additionally, men usually go to the cinema alone whereas women tend to go with friends, which means that even if films are directed by men, many films are made with a female audience in mind.

Akiko Ashizawa 芦澤明子, b. 1951
At Nippon Connection 2009 Kito also pointed out the growing number of women cinematographers, such as Akiko Ashizawa who has become a favourite with Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata, Sakebi, Loft).  As male directors still dominate the industry, I would guess that they are more likely to produce films directed by men.

Is there state funding for filmmakers in Japan? And if so, how easy is it for Japanese women to access it? 

There is state funding, especially on a regional level, but I am afraid I don’t know the details about accessibility.  

Who are your favourite Japanese women filmmakers? 

I have already mentioned many of my favourites.  I would really recommend the films of Mipo O (sometimes written Mipo Oh), but they are difficult viewing so it is unlikely that they will ever be 'popular'.  

Being Good (きみはいい子, 2015)
In her films she deals with really difficult relationships both in the family and in the community such as stalking and harassment, mental illness, child abuse, domestic abuse, prostitution, and rape.  She doesn’t depict these things in an exploitative way.  I find them sensitively shot and deeply realistic.  They are important stories that need to be told. . . though some people in the audience at Camera Japan found them difficult to bear.  I feel the abuse is balanced by people in the community who care and who are loving.  There are no easy endings with Mipo O, but real life rarely gives us happy endings.  

What about women's film collectives and WIFT? Film activists?

I don’t know about women’s film collectives in Japan but I can tell you about a woman director who is an activist for the deaf community.  Ayako Imamura is an independent documentary filmmaker who makes films from the deaf perspective. 

Ayako Imamura 今村彩子
I met her at Nippon Connection 2014 where she was screening her film The Connection Bridge (2013) which followed the attempts by volunteers to help deaf people affected by the 3/11 earthquake/tsunami disaster in Tohoku.  As cellphone service was down, many deaf people were cut off from emergency information and did not hear the tsunami warning sirens.  This meant that only those people who had thoughtful and concerned neighbours and family members were able to evacuate.  Many of those evacuated then had communication problems in their shelters.  The stories shared by survivors are really moving and I recommend it highly.  

Ayako Imamura’s official website

Cathy Munroe Hotes


We can support Cathy on Patreon.


Japanese Women's Film Festivals

From 1985-2012, the Tokyo International Women's Film Festival presented the work of Japanese female directors at the Tokyo International Film Festival (scroll down for details). Today I can find only two Japanese women's film festivals and welcome info about any more.

Aichi International Women's Film Festival, Nagoya Aichi

Scream Queen FilmFest, Tokyo, showcasing the best genre films by women directors from around the world.


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