Japanese auteur and Cannes favorite Naomi Kawase has been accused of violent behavior towards her staff and crew, including an assault that left an employee’s face swollen.

In May 2019 on the set of True Mothers, an assistant director touched Kawase to point out there was an issue with a shot. Though there is no suggestion that the contact was inappropriate, Kawase reportedly shouted “What do you think you are doing?” at the assistant director and kicked him in the stomach.

The entire cinematography team, led by Yuta Tsukinaga, resigned from the shoot following the incident. After the Tokyo-based weekly magazine and scoop factory Shukan Bunshun broke the story, Kawase said on her company’s website that the matter had been settled internally.

However, the magazine then wrote about an incident in October 2015, when Kawase reportedly assaulted a staff member at her production company Kumie’s office in Nara City. The award-winning director punched a male employee, knocking him to the ground and continuing to beat him while other staff members fled the office in fear.

When the staff returned, the victim’s face was visibly swollen. The employee, who resigned immediately, confirmed to Shukan Bunshun that the assault had taken place, but said he did not want to publicly comment on it.

Japan’s film industry has also been hit this year by a string of accusations of sexual abuse of actors by directors.

Kawase was appointed a UNESCO goodwill ambassador in November, telling a press conference in Paris: “I believe my role is to shed light on people who have not been talked about across the world and depict them on the world stage.”

On Friday, Kawase’s Tokyo 2020 Side A, the official film of last year’s Tokyo Summer Olympics, opened in Japan to little fanfare, no public appearance from the director and poor ticket sales.

It’s unclear whether the controversy surrounding Kawase has impacted audience enthusiasm. There was a good deal of ambivalence from the Japanese public toward the postponed Summer Games being held in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, though sentiment did warm up as the host nation won a flurry of medals and no major infection clusters emerged.

On Friday evening, the film was sitting in 13th place on the advanced sales ranking, with just 2,716 tickets sold, compared to more than 60,000 for chart-topper Top Gun: Maverick on its second weekend.

Ticket sales did pick up on Saturday, but the two-hour documentary, which premiered at Cannes to some acclaim, failed to make the weekend top 10.

Suzaku won Kawase the Camera d’Or best new director award at Cannes in 1997, catapulting her onto the international stage. 10 years later, she won the Grand Prix with The Mourning Forest, and has since sat on juries and had other films shown in competition at the festival.

Kawase’s new documentary was almost destined to suffer in comparison with Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad, the ambitious and seminal chronicle of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, which held the admissions record for a Japanese film with 23.5 million until it was broken 35 years later by Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

Though Ichikawa’s film was far more artistic than organizers had wanted or expected, the mood in Tokyo for those Games was buoyant as Japan returned to the world stage from post-WWII destruction, a stark contrast with the spectator-less events of last year marred by scandals, cost-overruns and concerns about the coronavirus.

The second part of Kawase’s Olympic film, Tokyo 2020 Side B, focusing on events away from the athletes, including opposition to the Games, is set for release next year.

THR contacted Kawase’s office for comment on the assault reports and lack of promotional appearances for her new film, but had not received a response at the time of writing.

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