Naomi Kawase was born in 1969, at a time when Japanese cinema was thriving with vigorous underground filmmaking, the initial streak in Kawase's own young career. Many of her works have been documentaries, including Embracing, about her search for the father who abandoned her as a child, and Katatsumori, about the grandmother who raised her. While studying photography at the Osaka School of Visual Arts, she started to make films as part of a workshop: “I focus on that which interests me” (1988), a personal symphony of the city, “The concretization of these things flying around me” (1989), a silent study of the homeless, "Presently (1989), a poetic piece visualising the four elements. After graduating from the Osaka School of Photography (then the School of Visual Arts) in 1989, she spent an additional four years as a lecturer.
In 1992, she made Embracing, a medium length 16mm feature in which she sets up to find her biological father (Naomi was brought up by her grandparents after her parents' marriage broke up). In 1993, she cast her documentary eye on a striking boy-meets-girl fiction in White Moon. She dedicated her following film Katatsumori to her grandmother. This film and the next one, See Heaven, won prizes at the Yamagata International Film Festival. International recognition increased powerfully in 1997 with the Camera d'Or at Cannes and the FIPRESCI Prize at Rotterdam for her first fiction feature, Moe no Suzaku, a tragic family history set against the backdrop of economic recession, shot in her hometown, the provincial city of Nara – a region often featured in her films. The Weald, an intimate depiction of old age, was awarded with a special mention at Visions du Réel in 1999. Mangekyo (1999), her latest documentary about her conflicting working relationship with photographer Shinya Arimoto, was screened at Rotterdam and Visions du Réel. Hotaru, shot again in Nara, is her second fiction feature.
Kawase's work is heavily concerned with the distorted space between fiction and non-fiction that has occurred within the state of modern Japanese society, approaching "fiction with a documentarian's gaze." She employs this documentary-realism to focus on individuals of lesser cultural status, challenging prevailing representations of women within the male-dominated Japanese film industry. This theme is also connected to her own personal reflections on contemporary issues in the current climate of economic depression such as the declining birth-rate, alienation, and the collapse of traditional family structures. She frequently shoots on location with amateur actors.