Creating empathy through discomfort.

In the summer of 1964, during the first Olympics ever held in Japan, renowned filmmaker Kon Ichikawa shot the acclaimed documentary, Tokyo Olympiad. After more than half a century, the Olympics will return to Tokyo, and the responsibility for documenting this epic event falls to Naomi Kawase.

“I’ve heard that the minimum requirement for the job was that it had to be a director with global recognition,” she says in regard to her selection. “Someone who is active on the international scene. There are a number of directors who meet this requirement, but I think they might have chosen me because I have continually pursued the creation of realistic works, and that mindset is appropriate for a film documenting athletes.”

Though her work has been well received internationally, it is not something she factors into her approach. “I’m not consciously thinking about the rest of the world when I work,” she asserts. “Even if I were to attempt to do so, I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

She does, however, attempt to establish a meaningful connection with the audience. “I think people watching a film want to experience things they don’t see every day, things that leave them with a slight feeling of discomfort. Within that discomfort there is a realism and trust that people can empathize with, and if it’s genuine, they’ll understand that it’s original. In other words, the things that inspire me are original, and by digging deeper into those ideas, I can connect with the world.”

Among the things that are most inspirational to Kawase are Nara, the city in which she grew up; Amami Ohshima, her ancestral home; and her family. She has also made a number of films that document painful changes in mountainous and forested regions, works that highlight the importance of preserving the natural world.

Kawase attributes the fact that audiences are so moved by her films to the unique way she visualizes the subject. “I remember suddenly realizing that I had a sort of third eye, gazing upon the world from somewhere above and behind my head. It was inspiring, and I think having that kind of perspective is indispensible for making films that are designed to be shared with many people.”

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