Postcard: Tokyo

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 3:58pm

Japan, with its dismal rates for women's participation in everything from politics to the workforce, hardly seems a place where female filmmakers could flourish.

After all, not long ago, the list of internationally recognised Japanese women directors began and ended with Naomi Kawase, the Nara city-born documentarian who became a Cannes regular following her 1997 Camera d'Or win for her feature debut, Moe no Suzaku.

However, last year the number of Japanese women directors scoring festival invitations abroad and box-office hits at home made it clear something more was going on than the occasional crash through the glass ceiling.

Our Homeland, a first feature by zainichi (ethnic Korean) filmmaker Yang Yong-hi based on her family's turbulent past, not only screened in the Forum section at last year's Berlin Film Festival, but was selected as Japan's nominee for the best foreign language film Oscar.

Also, among the world premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival last year were Miwa Nishikawa's Dreams for Sale, a drama with a dark comic edge about a couple who resort to marriage scams to raise money for a new pub, and Yuki Tanada's The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky, a multi-layered drama about the fallout from an inappropriate affair.

Back in Japan photographer-turned-filmmaker Mika Ninagawa had a US$24-million hit with Helter Skelter, a high-intensity, deeply cynical look at the local fashion/celeb culture, starring tabloid "scandal queen" Erika Sawajiri.

Among other women directors with commercial releases last year were Eriko Kitagawa, whose I Have to Buy New Shoes was a May-September romance set in Paris, and Naoko Ogigami, whose Rent-a-Cat was a whimsical drama about a thirty-something cat lady who provides felines for the lonely.

Why have so many women directors broken through? For one, the old sexist studio system has broken down. Instead, more tyro directors, of both sexes, are finding ways to make their first features. Also, distributors are aware a large proportion of Japan's film audience is female and that certain women directors are adept at targeting them. So has a new age for the country's female filmmakers finally dawned? We'll know when Toho hires a woman to direct its next Godzilla epic.