TOKYO – Naomi Kawase, the director of the official film of the Tokyo Olympics, acknowledged she was taken aback at first about her assignment. That was late in 2018 when she got the commission from the International Olympic Committee.
The job never got any easier.
Japanese public opinion was divided about holding the Games after the COVID-19 pandemic postponed them for a year, and the costs kept climbing. Tokyo is regarded as the most expensive Olympics on record.
There were scandals, topped by the resignation of Yoshiro Mori, the head of the organizing committee, just months before the Olympics opened. Disgruntled artists charged with designing the opening and closing ceremonies also resigned.
It was only after Kawase decided to focus on the athletes in so-called Side A, and on much of the turmoil in Side B, that she felt sure about how to handle all the material.
Each two-hour segment has been released as a separate film — titled “Official Film of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 Side A" and “Official Film of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 Side B.”
“I never wavered,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday. “There was suddenly this giant divide, the world sank into a troubled mood, and people were forced to spend their time without easy answers.”
Side A and Side B, released recently in Japanese theaters, were like “twins,” she said. When seen together, they tell what she called “the human condition" exposed by the Olympics.
She said talks are underway for global streaming, but nothing has been decided.
Kawase recently returned from the Cannes Film Festival, where Side A was featured. Kawase won the Camera d’Or at the festival in 1997. She has served as a competition judge at Cannes. In 2007, she won the Grand Prix at the event.
Sifting through about 5,000 hours of footage was a challenge Kawase said she had not dealt with before — like working through a mathematical puzzle.
One driving theme is a message about gender inequality.
Japan, with the world’s third largest economy, consistently ranks low on gender-gap studies with females underrepresented in board rooms and political leadership. Kawase said she has personally suffered as a female director in Japan.
Side A shows — among many other things — an Olympian who is competing after giving birth.
Side B shows horrific imagery of the 2011 tsunami in northeastern Japan. Some Olympic events, like the torch relay, were held there to highlight the region’s reconstruction.
Side B also depicts some of the humble players, like the man in charge of grooming the grounds at the National Stadium in Tokyo, or the chef overseeing food served for athletes at the Olympic Village.
Dramatically highlighting the sexism theme is Mori, whose face popped up often in close-ups.
Mori, a former prime minister, was forced to resign as the president of the Olympic organizing committee following off-the-cuff remarks that women talk too much, which leads to long meetings.
“If you get that close with faces, there are moments in people’s expressions, even in the tiniest movements of their eyes, when you see through what they are really thinking," Kawase said.
Mori was replaced by a woman, politician and former Olympic bronze medalist Seiko Hashimoto. Other women were also added to the organizing committee leadership after Mori's resignation.
They are seen in the films.
“It’s becoming very clear now that there are many aspects of Japanese society that need to change," Kawase said. "When society works as a larger system, what is truly precious gets overlooked, and what happens becomes so superficial.”
Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter https://twitter.com/yurikageyama
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