Of the three great cinemas in the world--American, French, Japanese--the Japanese have been the slowest to admit women into the ranks of directors (not that the record of the other two is exemplary).
"Films by Japanese Women," a series running through September at the Gene Siskel Film Center, shows recent breakthroughs by women who came to feature films by whatever routes they could find--including, in one case, pornography.
The series begins tonight with "Suzaku," a first feature by Naomi Kawase, who gained earlier recognition as a maker of documentary shorts: That she made them in 8mm was an artistic decision but perhaps also an economic one. Her first fiction feature is in 35mm, filmed often in leisurely long shots. Made up of bits of everyday life that only gradually reveal the underlying story, it evokes the isolation and loneliness in a town left almost abandoned when it is decided that a railway tunnel will not be completed. The film won the Camera d'Or Award as the best first film at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.
Movies like this demand the clarity of the big screen, to reveal the secrets in shadows and the small gestures at a distance. Little is overtly expressed in the dialogue, and so we must read faces, body language and nuances to appreciate what is going on. Hoping to review the film in advance, I tried to watch a videotape copy, but it was too indistinct to do the film justice; when I introduce it tonight at the Siskel Center, it will be without seeing it. Luckily, the center will be showing a 35mm print. Joining me at the kickoff of the series will be Japanese Consul General Mitsuo Sakaba, a diplomat who is also a well-informed film lover. ("Suzaku" also will play at 5:45 p.m. Saturday.)
Other titles in the series:"Falling Into the Evening" (1998) is the first film directed by Naoe Gozu, who produced the great film "Maborosi," about a widow and widower who start again with their children in a remote seaside village. This film follows a strange love triangle, when a man informs his girlfriend he's leaving her for another woman--and then the woman, charismatic but unstable, moves in with them, whether to cause trouble or out of her general confusion, is hard to say. Screening at 6:15 p.m. Friday and 6:15 p.m. Sept. 11.
"Solitude Point" (1997), directed by Hisako Matsui, is set in Baton Rouge, La., and stars Mitsuko Baisho as a war bride, now descending into Alzheimer's, and Bo Svenson as her husband, whose understanding of the disease is limited, and who blames himself for what he thinks is her broken heart. Screening at 5:45 p.m. Sept.13 and 6:15 p.m. Sept. 17.
"Love/Juice" (2000), directed by Kaze Shindo (granddaughter of the famous director Kaneto Shindo), takes place in the club world. There are two heroines, one straight, one lesbian; the lesbian has a crush on her friend, who has a crush on a boy who's a regular in the clubs. Barbara Scharres, the Film Center's director of programming, says Shindo's "teasing strategy becomes the center of the story." Screening at 8 p.m. Sept. 19.
"Elder Parents" (2000) is by Tazuko Makitsubo, who directs from a wheelchair because of severe arthritis; this is her fourth film. The heroine gets a divorce and leaves her longtime family only to find her elderly former father-in-law expecting to move in with her and her new husband, and be cared for as before. Screening at 6 p.m. Sept. 26 and 5:30 p.m. Sept. 27.
"Lily Festival" (2001) is by Sachi Hamano, who will appear in person along with screenwriter Kuninori Yamazaki. Hamano is the filmmaker who began in porno and made more than 300 features, which were mostly attempts to approach eroticism from a female point of view. This film stands apart as a romantic comedy, starring women spanning the ages from 69 to 91. Scharres said Hamano wanted to fight the prevailing stereotype of older women as "desexualized cute old ladies," and the movie was financed by donations from 12,000 Japanese women. Screening at 7:45 p.m. Sept. 27 and 29.