Ninagawa Mika is a prolific artist and entrepreneur. She is a videographer, a designer, an installation artist, and a director of films, music videos, and television. She has licensed clothing collaborations as well as ongoing partnerships with various brands and goods. As of November 2022, her name is associated with two Instagram accounts, a Twitter account, a YouTube channel, and a variety of proprietary websites. It is also a Twitter hashtag. But Ninagawa is first and foremost a photographer and she produces both art and commercial images. She debuted in 1996, winning one of the most prestigious prizes for emerging photographers in Japan. In 2014, Vogue Japan named her a 'Women Of Our Times'. In 2017, she received a Women of Excellence Award at the WOMAN EXPO TOKYO (Nikkei). As both of her parents are celebrated artists in their own crafts – stage theatre and textiles – the family name 'Ninagawa' holds celebrity status in Japan. Ninagawa Mika, sometimes 'NinaMika', has made it a brand.
Unlike her contemporaries, Ninagawa is outspoken about being a woman in commercial industries and about the gendered dynamics of her working experiences. Generally speaking, women directors in Japan will not engage in discussions about gender or feminism (e.g. Directors Guild of Japan 2004; Laird 2012; Norman 2017; Wilentz 2007; Yin 2016). By marked contrast, when discussing filmmaking, Ninagawa often speaks from the self-described position of 'woman director'. She also believes that she shows a 'woman’s perspective' and that this point of view is something that can be understood and shared universally by other women (with little consideration of who or what that might mean) (Ninagawa 2007). Asserting a gendered position and vision, Ninagawa brings us back to a problematic and contentious inquiry: what do we see when a woman is behind the camera?
In claiming this 'woman’s perspective' or 'woman’s gaze', Ninagawa also brings us back once again to the politics and theories of the gendered gaze, of who looks, who directs, who is looked at, and who does the looking. Throughout her career, Ninagawa inhabits these various positions, sometimes simultaneously. In her body of work she is the director, the camera operator, the figure looked upon in her cameos and self portraits, and, in her mind’s eye, the camera itself. And so rather than ask what it is we see when a woman is behind a camera, I am inspired to wonder what happens when a woman removes all the middlemen? Or, given her exhaustive efforts of brand and enterprise, what happens when she consumes them?
Ninagawa Mika’s works are highly referential, each endeavoring for an excess of intertextuality. At the same time, Ninagawa’s works are also always self-referential, each an exertion of the Ninagawa brand. Her 2012 film Helter Skelter is exemplary of this practice, particularly the opening sequence. Through rapid juxtaposition, the montage of 146 shots familiarizes the audience with the film’s female protagonist, contemporary Japanese cosmetics culture, the Japanese commercial photography industry, the Shinjuku high fashion district of Tokyo, and various gendered consumption practices all tied to the body, the politics of looking, and the construction and representation of one’s outward-facing visual self. The sequence also draws on icons of pop culture, both domestic and transnational, including Japanese manga artist Okazaki Kyōko (from whose work of the same name the film is adapted, 1995-1996), Japanese visual artist Kusama Yayoi, German punk singer Nina Hagen, and Ninagawa’s own professional photo catalogue supported by a fashion design network with its own internal referentiality. But the similarities to Hitchcock’s Vertigo highlight the role of the camera in her work and the constant self-assertion of the Ninagawa persona at the fore of it all. The idea of Ninagawa may be behind the camera, but she is in front of it, too. She is in the text and of the text.
Although Laura Mulvey originally argued that a psychoanalytical reading of Hitchcock’s camera revealed latent power dynamics along lines of psychosexual difference, namely a symbolic order in which men/the camera are active lookers while women are passive objects of the gaze (1975), she later came to think of Vertigo as a self-reflexive film in which Hitchcock was acutely aware of the psychology and politics of these dynamics and was exploring them outright in the film (2019, 44-45). In between these two considerations, many, including Mulvey (1981), have pointed out the limitations of locating the illusory spectator’s own sexuality and pleasure in the relationship between the camera and the directed target of its gaze, particularly when reduced to binary, heterosexual structures of pleasure that lack the insights of intersectionality. But if we leave the spectator out of it, to the extent that we can, Mulvey’s foundational work on Vertigo highlights the relationship between a director, his camera, and his male protagonist through whom a woman is an idealized and gendered body object looked upon. What, then, might we make of this relationship in Ninagawa’s Helter Skelter, a film in which a hetero-cis-male presence is considerably diminished?
If the voyeurism in Vertigo can be read to reveal the triangulated relationship between a male director, his camera, and his male protagonist projected through a looked-at woman, Ninagawa condenses this relationship in Helter Skelter to the female director, her camera, and her female protagonist. Ninagawa reminds us of her presence within and around the film; she has several cameo appearances as a fashion photographer, SLR camera in hand. In these moments, Ninagawa both supplants the actual cameraman who shot Helter Skelter (Sōma Daisuke) by power of suggestion and reminds audiences that this is her film, her world, her vision, and that she is both a director and a camera operator. As asserted by the title credits, this is 'A Mika Ninagawa Film'. The suggestion of the relationship between director, camera, and character here is that they are all one and they share the same gaze: one woman’s perspective. The fantasy is a depiction of Ninagawa’s own voyueristic desire to consume the central middleman, the very apparatus of looking: 'I wish my eye were a camera shutter' (Ninagawa 2011, 107).
The credits of this video essay are juxtaposed with final shots of Helter Skelter’s own narrative coda. In a surprise reveal, we see the protagonist Liliko sitting triumphantly upon her throne in a high-fashion underground burlesque club. Having stabbed herself in one eye, Liliko looks at the camera with her remaining eye in direct address. Or, rather, she looks at the reflection of herself, a single-lens camera. And she smiles.
Directors Guild of Japan. 2004. 'Dai 45 kai 2004 nendo nihon eiga kantoku kyōkai shinjinshō: Jushō kinen Intabyū'.
Laird, Colleen. 2012. Sea Change: Japan’s New Wave of Female Film Directors. University of Oregon.
Mulvey, Laura. 1975. 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'. Screen 16, no. 4: 6-18.
—. 1989. “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946)'. In: Visual and Other Pleasures. Language, Discourse, Society. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
—. 2019. Afterimages: On Cinema, Women and Changing Times. London: Reaktion Books.
Nikkei Business Publications. 2022. 'Dai 7 kai ‘Women of Excellence Awards”'. https://special.nikkeibp.co.jp/atclh/NXW/21/seiko0419/
Ninagawa, Mika. 2007. Kantoku nikki. Tokyo: Kodansha.
—. Helter Skelter. 2012. Tokyo: Asmik Ace Entertainment.
—. 2011. Ninagawa Mika no kotobashū. Tokyo: East Press.
Norman, Mara. 2017. 'NYAFF 2017: Interview w/ Naoko Ogigami'. Cinema Adrift. http://www.cinema-adrift.com/blog/2017/7/18/nyaff-2017-interview-w-naoko-ogigami
Okazaki, Kyoko. 1995-1996. Helter skelter. Tokyo: Shōdensha.
Vogue Japan. 2014. 'VOUGE JAPAN ga erabu kotoshi motomo kagayaita vo-gu na joseitachi'. https://reffect.vogue.co.jp/woty/2014/
Wilentz, David. 2007. 'Dream So Real: And Interview with Miwa Nishikawa'. The Brooklyn Rail. http://brooklynrail.org/2007/10/film/dream-soreal
Yin, Wai Lu. 2016. 'Yuki Tanada Interview: "I think there is a huge struggle for filmmakers right now, the we don’t have the middle ground"’ Easternkicks.com. https://www.easternkicks.com/features/yuki-tanada-interview-2/
Colleen Laird is an Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of British Columbia. Her primary focus is on Japanese women directors and has published on the industry relationships between women directors, female identifying spectators, and the contemporary Japanese film market. Her publications include 'One Ghost, Two Shells: The Transnational Treasure Text of Kikuchi Rinko' (Feminist Media Studies, 2020), 'Imaging a Female Filmmaker: The Director Personas of Nishikawa Miwa and Ogigami Naoko' (Frames Cinema Journal, 2013), 'Star Gazing: Sight Lines and Studio Brands in Postwar Japanese Film Posters' (Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema, 2011), and 'Japanese Cinema and the Classroom' (Jump Cut, 2010). She has also produced a series of public-facing educational videos on Japanese Cinema, and is the creator of the Japanese Women Directors Project (website forthcoming). She is currently writing a monograph on Japanese women directors.