Naomi Kawase is on her phone in the back of a taxi, squeezing in this interview on the way to another shoot. For a director known for her lyrical brand of filmmaking, she talks at a clip; time is pressing, understandable as the days edge closer to the opening of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
The Japanese auteur, the nation’s most famous female director, is deep into the production of her official film of the delayed Games. By her count she has recorded over 300 hours of footage already, with at least another 100 ahead. Despite the familiar format of the event, what remains could be the most unpredictable hours yet — the uncertainty nothing to do with who wins and loses once the Games begin.
“It’s very important to keep both negative and positive”
Kawase directs Juliette Binoche in 2018 film “Vision.” Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
By taking the commission, Kawase joins the likes of Kon Ichikawa, Claude Lelouch, Milos Forman, Arthur Penn and Leni Riefenstahl as acclaimed directors to answer the Olympic calling. But despite her renown, there was some uncertainty when Kawase was appointed in 2018. How would a fiercely independent director fare not only covering, but working with, such colossal institutions? Would the filmmaker behind intimate award winners “Radiance” and “Suzaku” be forced to adjust her style to accommodate a sprawling commercial event such as the Olympics?
Signs suggest she remains steadfast, even if the pandemic has forced her to change the way she works.
Like directors before her, she is profiling competitors from around the world. It’s sharing their backstories, she explained, that set films apart from television broadcasts of the Games. “I’d rather focus on mom athletes, as I am female myself,” she said, “and access those athletes who develop their careers as top athletes even after they become mothers.” It is, she added, “a relatively unique approach.”
Alongside this material she said she has a crew of 100, “running about throughout Japan” recording people preparing for the Games “with such positive and forward-looking feelings.”
Kawase shooting her upcoming official film of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Credit: courtesy Tokyo 2020
However, Kawase’s lens extends far further than the usual assortment of athletes and organizers we normally find in these films. Circumstances have played a part. So too has curiosity. “What feelings do the medical workers, mainly in Tokyo and all over Japan, working against the coronavirus, have during this period?” she asks. The director has been visiting a hospital and its coronavirus ward to learn more.
She has also been filming quarantine staff at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. During the pandemic, frontline workers have been working “harder than (ever) before — even without enough sleep and food,” she added.
“I believe the figures who are striving day and night to make (the Games) as safe and secure as possible represent a truly important part of this documentary film.”
Kawase even sought out those set against holding the Games in the midst of a pandemic, and those distancing themselves from it, including a volunteer who resigned (she does not elaborate on the reason why).
“I think it’s very important to keep both negative and positive feelings as the record of this period,” she explained. The Olympics may be an outlet for negativity, she suggests, rather than the source of it: “The feelings are anxiety that our life is threatened by the coronavirus, and frustration; frustration with the insufficient amount of information from the government. These lead to (questions about) why such a big event should be held in Japan.”
A photograph dated July 17, 2021, shows police officers blocking activists in Tokyo at a protest calling for the cancellation of the 2020 Olympic Games. Credit: YUKI IWAMURA/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
In the footsteps of a legend
Kon Ichikawa (center) directing a crew at the Tokyo Games of 1964. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
Kawase, an admirer, describes it as a “very challenging experiment”: both a record of the ’64 Games and a narrative of the Games told through Ichikawa’s eyes. Like Ichikawa, Kawase said she is looking to focus on narrative in her documentary. As inspirations go, you could have worse guiding lights.
When the Games begin on July 23, she will be backstage at the Japan National Stadium recording some 10,000 athletes enter a near-empty arena, “to capture what cannot be seen on TV.” After the ceremony, the lawn will be replaced, ready for the track and field to commence. Naturally, Kawase’s cameras will be there through the night.
“This event cannot be turned into reality without the support from those working on such thankless tasks, and I’m ready to film the fact, because that means a lot to me,” she explains.
The film is due for completion in early spring 2022, with a Japanese release the same summer. She admits “the schedule will be quite tight,” but should all go to plan, it could debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
“The next Olympics will be held in Paris,” she said. “I’d very much like to introduce this film at the biggest film festival in France — of course, should it be accepted by Cannes.” She needn’t worry; the festival regular has had nine films play there to date.
A Games like no other will have a film like no other. We’ll have to wait, but all signs point to Kawase providing an invaluable perspective for the billions who can’t be there.