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Wendelien van Oldenborgh

Female artists, architects, authors, actors, activists, curators, academics and so on – an entire team is in action in Kanojo tachi no, invited by Wendelien van Oldenborgh. From Two Stones (FID 2020) to Obsada (FID 2022), her interest in collective adventures and counter-investigations into marginalised or invisible women is well known. This is a dual investigation focusing on two major figures, one literary, the other political, active in Japan in the middle of the last century: Fumiko Hayashi, a feminist author of semi-autobiographical fiction and poems expressing her sense of female solidarity and her homosexuality, and Yuriko Miyamoto, who pursued socialist ideals and worked for the liberation of Japanese women. The investigation moves back and forth between the house designed by Fumiko Hayashi in Tokyo and a library, a dual screen with fluid boundaries, moving cameras, and interwoven languages. Rather than separating, this binds together, by exploring the locations to create a resonance that flows between the people and the texts. From discussions to readings, little by little, we get a feel for the paths of the two women, the strength and singularity of their words, their positions and their contradictions, as echoes with today’s issues gradually emerge: women’s place in the world, assigned gender, emotions, desire and norms. And so this collective reflection in action is both a tribute and a launch.

Nicolas Feodoroff

Of girls continues your investigation into invisibilized or activist figures who reinterrogate the place of women in the art world and the society, as previously in Two Stones, Hier or lately in Obsada. What led you to these two Japanese writers?

An invitation for an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo had led me to wonder what the story of feminism in Japan looked like. I found that in the 20th Century, women started a number of magazines to discuss their position in a society which in general was—and still is—very patriarchal. One of these magazines, Nyunin Geijutsu (Women’s Art, which ran from 1928 to 1932) published articles by young poets and writers as well reports from the workspace by working women, and the magazine took on a more and more politically left direction. Through studying some of the political texts that were translated, I learned a lot about the different women’s voices of this period. To me, one bold young poet stood out. She came from a very poor background and worked many jobs, but gained her place in a male dominated avant-garde literary circle in Tokyo at the end of the 20s. When I saw her name coming back as the source on which several films by Mikio Naruse, I looked deeper into her work. This was Fumiko Hayashi, a novelist and poet who became very popular in her time. Kyongfa Che, the wonderful curator I was working with, then lead me to Yuriko Miyamoto, who was a writer of exactly the same epoch. She, on the other hand, came form privileged background and was a dedicated socialist who didn’t bend her politics during the war. In both women I found a fluidity with their expression of gender: Miyamoto lived a lesbian relationship for 7 years, Hayashi writes in a very punk way about her desires, which is not necessarily queer, but the way she expresses love for the women around her takes on erotic impulses.

This is a very diverse cast, activists, scholars or artists.

I had about five focal points around which I wanted to work when addressing both women’s works and choices: queer feminist issues, fascism, the war and the occupied territories, especially Indonesia—obviously also because of the Dutch history of domination there—and as always architecture. I looked for people who might be related to these issues in different ways. Before I was able to go to Japan, I had several meetings online with people I read about or was introduced to, but many meetings took place in Tokyo in the month before the shoot. I gained a lot of knowledge through the people I met in that time. As always one meeting lead to another and with time, inviting them to participate made sense. So the cast built up slowly.

You mix different texts they wrote. How did you choose them? What was the part of this collective in those choices?

All the sources that are read out are by Yuriko Miyamoto and Fumiko Hayashi and each of the cast members resonates differently with the issues we are raising together. From Yuriko, we read political texts as well as letters and diary entries recounting her lesbian relationship. Ariko Kurosawa researched the correspondences between Yuriko Miyamoto and Yoshiko Yuasa and their diaries. She published her work in a book in 2008 in which she also discusses Yuriko and Yoshiko’s romance in relation to the political context of the time. Kanae Tanikawa and Yiqing, the two young women who appear in the scene with Ariko Kurosawa on the balcony, chose parts from this publication they found beautiful to reflect on. There is also a conversation between Kiyomi Sokolova-Yamashita and Greg Dvorak. Sokolova-Yamashita is a literary scholar who researched Fumiko Hayashi’s writing during her wartime travels in the colonies, especially Indonesia, while Dvorak is a Tokyo-based researcher specialized in the Pacific region and its histories of coloniality, gender, and domination by different powers. They are discussing Fumiko Hayashi’s position through especially one story that relates to Indonesia. And in Fumiko’s house, where the Tokyo-based Ukrainian architect Veronika Ikonnikova ‘reads’ the architecture, the parts that are read out are from an early work which I knew as it had been translated to English.

Readings of but also discussions telling a story of today, with contemporary echoes. Why?

This was really the premise of the work: I felt there was an urge to talk about feminist and queer positions in contemporary Japan and I was wondering if the figures of Hayashi and Miyamoto could play a role in that.

Here, too, we find your interest in locations and architecture. Apart from Fumiko Hayashi’s house, how did you choose the locations for the shoot?

At the main location, Moto Eigakan, it was not so much the architecture that was guiding me as its function as a tiny cinema that dates back to the 1950s, which also nods to Mikio Naruse’s film adaptations of Fumiko’s stories. Moto Eigakan was recently restored by a group of young architects and has a clubby, bar-type atmosphere with retro furniture. It feels like this is where you would go to have a good time in contemporary Tokyo. We also filmed a short scene in the Kanagawa Prefectural Library in Yokohama, which was one of Kunio Maekawa’s first public projects in the early 1950s. I was looking for a place dedicated to books, reading, and archiving for us to hold a conversation on Fumiko’s writings from Japan’s occupied territories during the wars in China and the Asian Pacific. Maekawa’s postwar modernism somehow reflects the complex web of power relations that this part of Fumiko’s work brings to the fore.

The whole film works on the principle of double screen. What interested you in it? How did you work it?

It is so interesting you call it double screen, I never saw it like that. I was trying to make one panoramic shot out of two image lines, where the architecture never really settles into one stable space and people double up or join each other in scenes that were not shot with them together. We kept the camera moving to be sure that in the edit this would be the feeling of the whole. Eventually this constant shifting and flowing gained a large function towards the fluidity within and between the subjects of conversation.

Interviewed by Nicolas Feodoroff

  • Flash Competition  
  • International Competition

Technical sheet

Japan, Netherlands / 2023 / 43’

Rights holder
Wendelien van Oldenborgh