Dynamic duo Kawase and Kiki discuss new masterpiece
The story of a tiny pastry shop, An asks big questions about our relationship with the natural world and one another.
Director Naomi Kawase’s new film An had its North American premiere at September’s Toronto International Film Festival. It tells the story of Sentaro, the owner of a tiny dorayaki shop, and his friendship with elderly Tokue, a local sanatorium resident whose delicious anko bean paste transforms Sentaro’s shop and his life. Anchored by legendary actor Kirin Kiki’s astonishing performance, An is Kawase’s most successful film to date.
We sat down with Kawase-san and Kiki-san at the JCCC during their TIFF visit. The two clearly enjoy each other’s company and share a keen mutual respect.
On the current situation for women in the Japanese film industry:
Kawase: There are many roles for women but directors are still rare. I think that is changing, though. The Japanese film world is tight these days no matter your gender. Backers are very risk-averse so if you are a young filmmaker, male or female, you need to score a hit or you probably won’t get a second chance. Films adapted from TV shows or manga are a much safer bet if you want a hit. If you have an original screenplay, it is going to be a challenge.
Kiki: (laughing) Yes, there are many roles for women but no one wants the ones for old women so it seems like I am taking all of those.
On the film’s theme of the nature of happiness:
Kawase: Happiness is something that comes from within; a sense of comfort and satisfaction with the self. Others might see a nice car, good clothes or a comfortable lifestyle but such superficial things are meaningless if one lacks that internal happiness. We cannot know what painful thoughts those people carry within them. The main characters in An live isolated lives outside the normal world, but within that little dorayaki shop they find one another and— even though they are not family—they find that kind of happiness.
Kiki: Kawase-san is very unique. She is self-driven and because she is very talented she makes films like this one that brings us to TIFF. I was completely reliant on her—I put myself in her hands. It was a good experience that other actors should experience, too. The male directors I work with, like [Hirokazu] Kore-eda or [Masato] Harada, are pretty kind and they cut me a lot of slack, but Kawase-san wasn’t like that. She was exacting— she knew what she wanted from her actors. I am not sure I have the strength to work with such a powerful director again. (they both laugh)
Kawase: Kiki-san was the obvious choice for the Tokue role. Durian Sukegawa who wrote the novel said he wrote it with her in mind.
Kiki: It wasn’t the role but the chance to work with Kawase-san that drew me to the film.
Kawase: I focus on my personal vision of our connections to the natural world so my films end up being very “Japanese.” Maybe for that reason they have very mysterious “oriental” flavour that appeals to foreign audiences. I also think they elicit a sense of nostalgia among Parisians for life in the country. As with Tokyo, many people have come to the city from the countryside so my film inspires that longing for nature.
Kiki: (laughing) It’s the fashion! I think she loves to go to Cannes for the beautiful clothes!
On the suggestion that this is Kawase’s most “Japanese” film:
Kawase: It is not something I did purposefully. In fact I do not watch many Japanese films … but I am pleased with the comment. Japanese people do not directly express their feelings but there is a wordless understanding and I had my characters behave that way; they do not explain their feelings or actions but there is an understanding there. I think that is what gives the film its real Japanese sensibility.
On future projects:
Kawase: Because An was a hit in Japan, many are wondering what I will do next. I have actually made two films in the past two years, this one and Still the Water—so I intend to take my time and see what emerges from inside me. I have to think rationally.
Kiki: That’s not a problem. She’s stubborn! (both laughing)
Kirin Kiki is one of Japan’s busiest and most popular actors. A winner of multiple acting awards, her films include Still Walking, Chronicle of My Mother and Like Father, Like Son.
Naomi Kawase is a director and writer, known for Still the Water and Hanezu. A particular favourite at Cannes, her award-winning films are festival staples around the world.