Kiyoshi Kurosawa has always been a director for hire. He came up in the film industry during Nikkatsu’s 17 year regression into “Roman Porno” and pinku eiga, a style of soft-core filmmaking, before they filed bankruptcy in the ‘90s. In its golden age, the Japanese movie studio promoted young assistant directors, like Seijun Suzuki and Shohei Imamura, to direct genre films on break-neck shooting schedules and stingy budgets. Working under contract, the directors possibly saw something of themselves in the chain-smoking contract killers they so often portrayed in their Yakuza films. To them, making movies was just a job. But many saw art, fetishized it, or noted patterns and symbols the directors proudly wrote off in interviews. Any creativity in style and form was merely a way of differentiating one film from the others Nikkatsu produced en masse. In the “Roman Porno” days, Kurosawa was directing softcore films for the independent production house “Director’s Company,” hoping to garner Nikkatsu’s attention and transition into the studio system. Million Film, the distributor of his first softcore feature, Kandagawa Pervert Wars (1985), a Rear Window-esqueromantic comedy, resented it for not conforming to the erotic demands of the genre. But despite his contrarian style, Nikkatsu bought and released Kurosawa’s second feature, the Godard-like softcore Bumpkin Soup (1985), and Kurosawa eventually went on to break out of pinku eiga into TV, crime movies, and the horror he became known for, as a writer and director for hire.
Nearly 35 years after Bumpkin Soup, Kurosawa and Nikkatsu have collaborated yet again for his World War II drama Wife of a Spy. The film centers on Satoko (Yū Aoi), who begins to suspect that her husband, Yūsaku (Issey Takahashi), works undercover for the Americans. An old mutual friend of the two, Taiji (Masahiro Higashide), suddenly appears in their lives after a British merchant is arrested on suspicion of spying, on Yūsaku’s own company grounds. Recently promoted to squad leader, Taiji sports a dapper Imperial officer’s uniform when he surprises Yūsaku at his office one day and swears to him that he “hates” arresting people despite the garb. Taiji suspects Yūsaku and tries to use Satoko to expose him, and so she finds herself thrust between the two men, uncertain of whom to trust. This is a classic Kurosawa set up, a small, domestic story blown up to movie-size proportions. This could be the tale of any husband who keeps secrets from his wife in a mistaken effort to protect her, but in Wife of a Spy, affairs are treason and a husband’s secrets are locked up in a literal safe inside a storage room.
Yet the film remains insular and its drama unfolds over just a few locations. Blasts of light obscure the windows of its interiors so that there is nothing to look out to, directing our attention back inward and revealing the limits of Kurosawa’s interest in the backdrop of the war. This is also a practical decision common to Kurosawa films, made often on Wife of a Spy to avoid having to build period settings from scratch deep into the background. Regardless of intention, it portrays Satoko’s worldview as apolitical and sealed off from the rest of the world and her husband’s exterior life. Kurosawa introduces her last out of the three central characters, despite her being the protagonist, in wide shot and on the peripheries of an exchange between Yūsaku and his British merchant friend after he has suspiciously bailed him out of jail. In conversations, she is often framed over Yūsaku’s shoulder, and finally, Kurosawa divulges more clues to the viewer than Satoko is aware of herself, putting her at a disadvantage even to the audience.
But later in the film, Satoko begins to assert herself in Yūsaku’s intrigue and take agency over the camera and story structure. The film expands in scope only so far as Satoko sees more, and the viewer may begin to wonder why Kurosawa continues to hold his cards so close and not hand them over to her entirely. He may just have another trick up his sleeve, but he maneuvers the drama so carefully until then that the bulk of the film risks being dull or mistaken for it. The possibility of an affair amounting between Taiji and Satoko is so faintly alluded to that the gas never catches fire and Yūsaku and Satoko don’t reveal even a hint of the attraction that might have brought them together in the first place. But absurdity and humor trickles in and payoff finally comes, not so much by plot twist, as by the culmination of what Kurosawa has somehow gotten away with scheming up right in front of us.
Kurosawa still embraces the archetypes and tropes he used in his pinku eiga, TV, and genre films: the cop, the criminal, the wife, the spy. He still uses rear projection in his driving shots. It’s efficient, but it’s also a way of isolating a character (as in Pulse) or demarcating formal change (Tokyo Sonata). And he continues to humble his role as a director. The movie is a job and everyone has a job on it. He concedes in interviews, time and time again, as many great filmmakers do, that he did not intend an obvious pattern, or that they are the result of decisions made for him or by somebody else. The work itself is then humbled, but no less intricate, and its patterns, intentional or not, no less valid. Kurosawa was asked to capture Wife of a Spy on an 8K digital camera, for instance. This was not his choice, it was the job, but there’s no less irony in shooting a period film that is explicitly nostalgic for celluloid—there are several scenes of people watching an 8 mm home movie on a projector screen in the dark—on a state-of-the-art digital camera, and no less ironic that some people screened the film on a link capped at 720p on their laptops for the 2020 Venice Film Festival premiere.
The morning after Wife of a Spy’s Biennale premiere, Kurosawa talked to us over Zoom about his experience directing his first period film and creating a world that has to feel like it exists outside the boundaries of production limitations and the frame.
NOTEBOOK: I always found it interesting that instead of tossing the tropes and archetypes away that you, in some ways, had no choice but to use in your early genre and TV work, you have embraced their economy to dive deeper into metaphor, stories, and characters.
KIYOSHI KUROSAWA: That’s a very interesting comment and question. I don’t think anyone has said that to me. I would say the economy is not really intentional on my part, I would say rather that I would beg to do something different every time I embark on a project. What you see is probably not intentional on my part, but perhaps I have, as people often do, used past works and past patterns and used different versions of those and so forth. And perhaps that’s the limit of what a human being can do. [laughs]
NOTEBOOK: Your films almost always seem likedramatic metaphors for smaller, more relatable stories. For instance, in Wife of a Spy, the story of the husband who keeps secrets from his wife to “protect her,” but which ultimately hurts her more than if he were to open up to her, has been blown up to the size of World War II and espionage. Even as the plots or, in some cases, horrors become more complicated they are always a progression of that base story we can all relate to. Do you always try to sculpt the larger drama around this smaller story?
KUROSAWA: I’m glad you made that comment. It makes a filmmaker very happy to hear. The films that I have done up until now and in the past have had limited budgets and restrictions on the amount of days we’re able to shoot. Working in this way, there’s not a lot that you can put onto the screen visually, right? And I think that’s actually the strength of what cinema can do. What we’re really doing when we’re showing a movie on screen, is a world that goes beyond that square. We don’t see the world in 360 degrees. So if the audience can infer the expensive world they can’t see on the screen, then a filmmaker is very happy.
And this train of thought was emphasized even more so this time around because we were doing a period piece. When you make a story about contemporary Tokyo, you shoot what is there and what’s beyond that frame is, of course, just contemporary Tokyo. That is something you cannot do with a period piece, depicting the 1940s. So it is a creative act of saying a lot with what you’re able to show with the frame. That makes the task all the more challenging, but it also makes it more rewarding. It makes me realize again, that this is the essence of what filmmaking is, that inferring.
NOTEBOOK: The storage room behind the offices of Yūsaku’s offices, where he keeps his safe, has the soundscape of a cave, it echoes and every step and fidget reverberates to create an intense atmosphere. Can you talk about designing the soundscape of the space that holds all Yūsaku’s secrets?
KUROSAWA: I’m so glad you picked up those details. Indeed, it was very intentional. We could have crafted that space without a lot of sound, but I wanted to see what we could do within that limited set and scope—what we could do with sound and what we could create. It’s especially prevalent when the husband talks about what he witnessed in Manchuria, the very long monologue which you probably remember. We included sounds that help the viewer imagine what he saw in Manchuria, a very tense, kind of haunting, and almost malevolent soundscape that goes with it.
NOTEBOOK: There’s a line repeated throughout the film: “You’re still you beneath the uniform.” But the uniform, the symbol of who Taiji is supposed to be in his squad leader outfit and Yūsaku, in his Western garb, seems to prevail over that “you” beneath their roles and uniforms.
KUROSAWA: That’s a very perceptive comment, but I would say that it was not necessarily intentional on my part. But it does speak to the power of costume. You can explain to your actors their character as much as you want and they might not grasp it, but once they’re in uniform or once they’re in costume, they really do become their characters as the scenes progress. When they’re not in costume they are not their characters and they are very gentleman-like. But they do become their exteriors. And since it was my very first time doing a period piece like this, I really had not dealt with costumes in the way that we did with this film. The costumes from that era were not readily available for us to use, so we had to make everything from scratch. Everything was measured and tailored to the actors and both the filmmakers and actors go through that process of tailoring the costumes. They do very gradually become their characters in the process, and that was a very interesting process to look at.
NOTEBOOK: Framing the film through Satoko’s eyes, the film is not explicitly interested in exploring the war or the politics of the time, but do you feel any kind of inherent responsibilities as a filmmaker when portraying the past?
KUROSAWA: As you said, it is not a political film per se. Of course, I still feel a responsibility to a certain degree, but it’s not my intention to make a political statement, declare my political stance, or divulge Japan’s wartime secrets or anything like that. What we depict in this film is part of Japanese history, it is historical fact. It’s just that these details are the base of the melodrama and suspense film, or in other words, this piece of entertainment we’ve created. So, it’s not intentionally political and we did not embark upon this project to make a political statement or anything, but as the shooting progressed I began to realize that it’s different from making a contemporary piece. With a contemporary piece, again, you just put the camera in the streets of Tokyo and you have what you get there, and there’s no responsibility attached to that. But there is a certain responsibility in depicting what it must have been like. You are making a statement in a way when you’re depicting what reality must have been like. So, yes, in that way, there was a certain sense of responsibility and that made the filmmaking process more rewarding. In a contemporary film you gather actors, give them simple directions, and let them blend into the scenery, whereas when you’re creating something from scratch, as it doesn’t exist anymore, you have to think about the costumes, how many people were in the streets as passersby, how many soldiers were in a military regiment marching along and how many people were looking at that, and how many Japanese flags were hung in the streets. You’re creating a sense of reality that, again, comes with responsibility because you’re making a statement as to what it is like. So we felt that responsibility and had to accept that responsibility.