Obituary: Kashiko Kawakita
Wednesday 04 August 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.
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