Sightlines: Filmmaking in the Academy Issue 4 2022
Gwen Isaac: Director, Researcher
Title of work: Tokyo Woman
Length: 11 minutes 31 seconds
Gender imbalances in contemporary Japan are intimately observed through multifarious character studies in Gwen Isaac’s current documentary research project, Tokyo Woman. As a practising filmmaker and lecturer at Massey University’s School of Creative Media Production in New Zealand, Gwen focuses her lens on urban women who embody facets of gender inequities in modern Japan. Gwen’s approach to filming informs her teaching practice, positioning future filmmakers to be ‘glocal’ in outlook. The term ‘glocal’, when appropriated by screen production, argues for equipping new filmmakers to capture global stories while adjusting their practice to local conditions.
In developing her documentary practice and through capturing personal journey’s using a myriad of filmmaking approaches that reach beyond ‘cultural chauvinism’ (Bennet 2001), Gwen reveals moments of personal revelation from her 2019 trips to Japan while working on Tokyo Woman.
Integral to Gwen’s pedagogy is an approach that empowers Aotearoa’s screen production students and practitioners to traverse the intercultural divide despite limited funding opportunities for off-site storytelling. Part of Gwen’s practice defines a theoretical framework for those students who seek cross-cultural engagement. Setting out to be a longitudinal study, these encounters with Japanese women are suspended for now, yet Tokyo Woman offers a unique glimpse into three women’s lives during a defining moment in Japan’s gender history – harnessing a feminist film practice that is part observational, part participatory.
Tokyo Woman utilises a multi-method approach to interrogate a contemporary gender issue, whilst critically engaging a position as a Pākehā filmmaker who works cross-culturally in a documentary film practice. Gwen works alone, utilising expository, participatory, and observational documentary filmmaking approaches to explore a rapidly changing time for women in Japan.
Bennett, Milton J. 2001. “Intercultural competence for global leadership.” Oregon: The Intercultural Communication Institute
PEER REVIEW 1
I liked the subject matter of the film and as a female, I feel that it is very relevant today. The filmmaker takes us into a triptych depicting the lives of three Japanese women illustrating their encounters with gender inequality in the workplace and at home. The juxtaposition of the workplace and home life is well executed. Each of the women has a distinctive voice in relation to gender inequality within their culture.
The world of the story is set in Tokyo, Japan. It could have been interesting to include one or two male perspectives on gender inequality in the film. For example, in the third section, there may have been an opportunity to ask the husband his thoughts on a working mother. What are some of the benefits or sacrifices in the home when both of the parents are working? However, the filmmaker titles the film Tokyo Woman, so I understand her decision not to include a male voice in the documentary as that was not the focus of her research.
There is definitely a dramatic question posed within the documentary in regard to gender inequality within the work world towards women. The filmmaker opens with a quote from The Guardian newspaper and places her theme in the mind’s eye of her viewing audience. In the first narrative, it was successfully introduced and developed, how a female in the workforce felt the requirement as a woman to wear high heels at work. This is a form of gender inequality. I thought this example was very economic and effective in terms of bringing the theme of the film to the forefront.
The second subject is a Kimono stylist in Tokyo. I enjoyed learning about the Japanese word ‘”Joshiryoku”, a contentious term in Japan used to describe a female’s ability to be overtly feminine’. The three female characters that the filmmaker chose were compelling and have their own distinctive style and air of independence. Her viewpoint is refreshing and unique and also takes us into Japanese culture in a very specific way. Feminism is revealed through the art of clothing.
The work successfully profiles three distinctive women, and the third subject is a working mother. In this third narrative I found it interesting that the mother reveals her eldest daughter to be seeking approval from adults whereas she wants her to behave more as a child. This insight was interesting. Despite being a working mother, she is emotionally aware of her children’s needs. In this regard, the filmmaker is true to her abstract.
The role model of a successful working mother is illustrated in the film. The material proves that if daughters are mentored by their mothers to have a balanced relationship toward motherhood and working, this helps to reinforce positive role models of women in the workforce. The filmmaker uses a quote from Feminist scholar, Chizuko Ueno to describe Japan’s gender problem as a ‘human disaster’.
There is evidence that the division of labour is still unequal and in motherhood even if a female is working, more of the domestic tasks tend to fall on the woman. There was a positive seed for change, although the third subject says that her husband is concerned that her having a job takes her time away from the children.
This could have been expanded upon more. What are some of the challenges that face a working mother or working parents? What kind of sacrifices are made for the good of the home versus time spent with the children? In an ideal world is it preferable to have one parent be a stay at home parent and the other to support the family financially. This is a question I would be curious to see explored on a deeper level. Overall, the filmmaker did an excellent job of presenting some of the challenges that women encounter in the workforce. I would argue that the quote that ends the movie is not fully explored in the theme of the film.
PEER REVIEW 2
Which aspects of the submission are of interest/relevance and why?
Tokyo Woman is a beautifully produced short documentary for Western audiences illuminating the feminist #KuToo movement in Japan. Its exploration of gender discrimination and gender equity is charmingly captured through the inter-generational relationships that elucidate the influence women have on other women. The combination of images of women at work, at home, and in and around their urban communities exemplifies the roles and expectations of women in Japanese society. The observational method enables the filmmaker to acquire obscured nuances of the lived experiences of these women – from the children reading books with their parents and grandmother, to the mothers riding and walking with their children on the streets.
Does the submission live up to its potential?
While the #MeToo feminist movement received global coverage, this lesser-known movement in Japan is arguably more important to the progression of women’s rights in Japan. However, while the film showcases how some women are challenging the societal heteronormative gender roles in Japan, this could be further contextualised as it is assumed that the viewer is aware of Japan’s history and traditions. This could be rectified by extending the film (even to 15 mins) to provide the necessary framing of the issue being explored and the context required for a more general audience. The opening sequence suggests that the short film could be part of a larger series or longer study, with other women present who are not featured in the documentary. This project has enduring value and it is hoped that the longitudinal study will continue when the conditions allow for it.
How does the submission expose practice as research?
The film’s cross-cultural engagement is commendable and as a pedagogical tool, could act as an exemplar for cross-cultural documentary practice. There is a clear issue explored throughout the film and while there is no innovation in the documentary-making practice itself, the topic is timely and contemporaneous with other feminist movements.
Please provide feedback/suggestions for changes to the research statement or creative work
Towards the end of the film, the ‘working mother’ is asked if she thinks her husband is proud of her. I thought this to be an interesting question, yet it was one that was not followed through with. I also wondered if the same question was asked of her mother (who was also a working mother) and even of herself. Whilst the working mother initially laughs at the question, she answers that she is ‘not sure’. Then there is a brief moment where her gaze and mouth drop as if really pondering the question – it is as if in that moment her subconscious reveals her doubt. This moment felt significant and yet was fleeting and left me questioning the role that pride has in maintaining social norms in Japanese society.
Certainly, new knowledge of the topic is conveyed, but the creative practice underpinning the project is not as evident in the final output or in the research statement. As a research project, ultimately the film contains evidence of the under-researched topic of women’s work in Japan and the modern movements to counter traditional norms, but not necessarily a discussion of the ‘glocal’ concept outlined in the research statement.
The research statement requires another edit for clarity (structure, flow and expression). There is a mix of theory and practice, methods and personal anecdotes, but it could be strengthened by having a clearer argument or thesis that drives the research statement and creates a flow of ideas. The references need to be formatted consistently.
Response – Peer Review 1
I did not include male perspectives for the simple reason that this is a film about women, in their own voice, outside of the established (and I argue dominant patriarchal) culture of modern Japan. This piece was intended to act as a safe and entirely female sphere, that the women could inhabit and pervade. All of the crew involved in filming were women, and my practice is a feminist documentary filmmaking one. One husband does feature and is referred to, and for a longer-form film, it would be possible to explore their view on the issue of female empowerment. Three minutes per person is not a long time to transmute their personal life experiences and with a preference for the observational documentary and actuality footage, I attempted to allow that to say things that were not explicit in the interview sections.
The division of labour in the home of the professional couple with two children, as featured in the final of the third film, is a huge topic. I decided to keep the included quotes broad so that we gain an ‘overview’ but nothing is investigated in detail. Short-form content does not allow for deeper dives, but my hope is to revisit all of the eleven women I filmed when I went to Tokyo in 2019 so as to develop this into a longitudinal study.
The films are text heavy, with quotes, statistics and interstitial definitions. The reviewer has commented that some of these are effective but others could be expanded on. This is my intention with developing the project into a longer form film project in the future.
Response – Peer Review 2
As a fan of filmmaker Kim Longinotto’s transnational feminist practice, this was a driver for me in the authoring of this short form content. I strongly believe that content that piques a viewers interest and is engaging would be compromised by a history lesson to contextualise the encounters, as this reviewer has suggested. ‘Glocal’ in this short film is being reinterpreted by me in my practice and the creative output. The film itself is not attempting to interrogate the concept. I really like that the reviewer has identified moments that they feel could have been explored further, and indeed, revisitations towards a longer form film would indeed explore those moments in greater depth. This short form content was also created with the intention of helping to put an argument forward for further funding to this end. I researched this topic by encountering women in their homes or places of work in semi-structured interviews. Relating the history of Japanese feminism through this medium would have moved outside of the intimacy and immediacy of the voices of these three women. I agree that the research statement requires more attention.
REVISED RESEARCH STATEMENT
Gender imbalances in contemporary Japan are intimately observed through multifarious character studies in Gwen Isaac’s documentary research project, Tokyo Woman (dur. 11 minutes). As a practising filmmaker and lecturer at Massey University’s School of Creative Media Production in New Zealand, Gwen focuses her lens on urban women who embody facets of gender inequities in modern Japan.
Gwen’s approach to filming is informed by her current research around filmic narratives that are driven by the search for a feminist identity through documentary practice. Her work traverses current debates around voice and authorship within a feminist film practice. She is influenced by filmmakers Kim Longinotto and Pietra Bretkelly whose works foreground gender issues and fold in transnational feminism.
Tokyo Woman was devised to capture personal journeys using a myriad of filmmaking approaches that reach beyond ‘cultural chauvinism’ (Bennet 2001). In these separate encounters, she captured moments of personal truth during trips to Japan in 2019. Her ‘truth claim’ (Nichols 2001) is dialectical – striving for a conversation between the social actor and the filmmaker. Giving these women ‘voice’, to speak for themselves on the subject of their own empowerment, allows them part-authorship over their own feminist narrative.
Setting out to be a longitudinal study of several Tokyo-based working women, the intended longer form project is suspended for now. Yet Tokyo Woman offers a unique glimpse into three women’s lives during a defining moment in Japan’s gender history. Tokyo Woman utilises a multi-method approach to interrogate a contemporary gender issue, hoping to ignite further investigation by viewers rather than attempt a comprehensive study of this complex issue. Gwen works with a translator-camera assistant hybrid, utilising participatory and observational documentary filmmaking approaches to explore a rapidly changing time for women in Japan.
Bennett, Milton J. 2001. “Intercultural competence for global leadership.” Oregon: The Intercultural Communication Institute
Nichols, Bill. 2001. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
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