Obituary: Kashiko Kawakita

Kashiko Kawakita, film producer-impresario, movie festival judge: born Osaka 1908; died Tokyo 27 July 1993.

SHE WAS NOT a director or an actress or even a script-girl, but Kashiko Kawakita was in her own very valuable way a star. When she appeared on a jury at the Cannes Film Festival, or at similar events in Berlin, Locarno and Venice, her fellow-professionals instantly recognised this little old lady in the sober kimono and with her hair drawn back into a homely bun as their dear friend - 'the Japanese face of the festival'. They knew that Kawakita-san was a walking encyclopeadia of film lore and legend, that she was a great producer of the creative impresario type, and that her modest, un-Hollywoodish demeanour concealed a burning passion for the cinema, and in particular for good films that were as modest, creative and classic as herself.

Kashiko Kawakita was born in Osaka, a part of Japan well-known for the practicality and outspokenness of its inhabitants, who would rather spend all their money on good food and drink than on the ruinously expensive kimono of their Kyoto neighbours. She had an excellent education at a famous Christian girls' school in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, the Ferris Women's College, where in addition to the traditional arts befitting a young Japanese lady in search of a suitable husband she learnt English and French, languages that were to stand her in good stead in her future life.

In 1928, on graduation, she obtained a secretarial job at Towa Shoji, at that time a prosperous trading company with an import-export business covering Europe and the United States. Its director, only five years her elder, was at once attracted by Kashiko's independent spirit and soon they were married.

Nagamasa Kawakita was born in Tokyo in 1903, and after learning German during his university studies he continued his further education in Berlin and Heidelberg. On returning to Japan, he founded the Towa company, which he, with Kashiko's help, was to transform into an important Japanese import-export film business, right up to its fusion with the Toho company in 1977.

But how did this passion for good films awaken in them? Nagamasa took his young bride on a honeymoon to Europe in 1930. Perhaps he had been inspired by the travels of a great Japanese movie director, the former kabuki 'female' star, or onnagata, Teinosuke Kinugasa, who had travelled from Madrid to Moscow with his new 'neosensationist' (ie expressionist) movies Jujiro ('Crossroads') and Kurutta ippeiji ('One Crazy Page') with an 'idea' and scenario by no less a writer than Yasunari Kawabata. He had visited every capital in Europe, and had met famous directors like Renoir, Eisenstein and Pudovkin. Kashiko Kawakita was to play a leading part in his being awarded the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1954 for his masterpiece Jigoku-mon ('Hell Gate').

When the newly married couple arrived in Berlin, they started attending performances in cinemas and theatres. There they saw Erik Charell's production of The White Horse Inn, a joyous musical, at the Grosses Schauspielhaus, and his immensely successful movie operetta Der Kongress tanzt ('Congress Dances'). But the film that impressed the couple most deeply was the actress Leontine Sagan's Madchen in Uniform ('Daughters in Uniform'), a magnificently Germanic study of emotional conflicts between students and staff at a strictly run girls' school - a theme that may have reminded Kashiko of her own experiences at Ferris. Its romanticisation of youthful suicide was a subject of profound interest to the Japanese, those experts in the art of freiwilliger Tod, or 'voluntary death'.

The Kawakitas decided to import this movie, with its radiant performance by Dorothea Wieck, along with Congress Dances, and they were immediate successes in Japan. The demand for the type of film they introduced from the West was very great, and several of their later imports had death and suicide themes, like Duvivier's 1932 version of Jules Renard's novel of persecuted childhood Poil de Carotte, and his Pepe le moko (1936), as well as Renoir's La grande illusion (1937) - whose anti-military sentiments gave the Kawakitas some trouble with the censor - Michael Powell's The Red Shoes (1948) and Rene Clement's Jeux interdits ('Forbidden Games'), screened in 1952. All these are frequently revived in Japan, and in June when I attempted to telephone a colleague in Nagoya she begged me to call back because she was watching Madchen in Uniform on NHK TV, at the same time asking me not to tell anyone what she was doing, as she was supposed to be very busy.

The Kawakitas then started to export fine Japanese films to the West, and soon became cultural ambassadors promoting international understanding of a rare kind. Thus the West got to know and admire Kurosawa's Rashomon (1951) and was overwhelmed by the new filming techniques of the cameraman Kazuo Miyagawa, followed by such masterpieces as Kinugasa's Jigoku-mon and Seven Samurai (1954), the first of Kurosawa's great John-Ford-inspired sushi westerns. Kashiko was made vice-president of Towa Movies.

In 1964, following the example of Henri Langlois at the Paris Cinematheque, she started a vigorous campaign to establish the Film Library in Tokyo, for which she was awarded the Geijutsu Sensho Prize for Encouragement of the Arts. A fellow movie enthusiast, Etsuko Takano (the founder of the 230-seat art house Iwanami Hall in Tokyo - the temple of all my movie madness), joined Kashiko in establishing the Equipe-do Cinema for art movies. After her husband died in 1981, Kashiko was awarded the Kan Kikuchi Prize for their joint work, and in 1982 became director-in-chief of a Movie Foundation devoted to his memory. In 1984, she became a Commandeur de la Legion d'Honneur, and in 1987 won the Asahi Prize for her life's work. Even at the end of her life, she was viewing over 200 movies a year. She is mentioned in the autobiographies of great directors like Kurosawa and Michael Powell. In June this year, a great festival of French films was held in Yokohama which attracted several thousand enraptured customers, and where the great hits were Cyril Collard's Les Nuits Fauves ('Savage Nights') and the costume science fiction comedy Les Visiteurs, both of them box-office triumphs in Europe. Kashiko Kawakita was too ill to attend this vast outpouring of enthusiasm for the kind of French films she and her husband had helped to popularise in Japan. But it was a final and unforgettable tribute to the vigour and honesty and artistic integrity of her whole life's work.

'The Japanese face at the festival' will be missed wherever people gather to judge and sometimes to applaud new films, but her spirit will always be there, smiling that gentle smile that could subdue the most fiery of jury temperaments and tantrums, or merely lowering her eyelids, the sign everyone knew to mean she disapproved of a choice. For she was indeed the Grand Old Lady of the movie world.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower