by Patrick Preziosi and Ryan Swen
Very excited to be discussing Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s newest film, Wife of a Spy, with you. Coming nearly 35 years into a remarkable and winding career, the film is Kurosawa’s first-ever period piece, and the recipient of a Silver Lion in Venice. Set at the onset of WWII, Wife of a Spy navigates the knotty ambiguities that originate from Satoko (Yu Aoi) suspecting her husband, silk mogul Yusaku (Issey Takahashi), of being a spy for the Americans––suspicions that are soon confirmed.
The specter of deceit and espionage takes shape in the opening scenes: a British merchant is taken in by the authorities on charges of conspiracy on Yusaku’s premises; he’s informed of this arrest by a childhood friend, Taiji (Masahiro Higashide), who’s recently cinched the position of squad leader. Taiji, despite a smug “distaste” for arresting people, attempts to get to Yusaku through Satoko, stringing along details that are hazy enough (a trip to wartorn Manchuria, a murdered hostess) to prey on her own nationalistic predelictions. Although vulnerable at this interval––particularly in an interrogation scene that’s executed with signature Kurosawa panache, as faceless uniformed soldiers emerge from inky shadows, flanking Satoko––she acquiesces to her husband’s counterintelligence after viewing a film reel that details Japan’s use of biological warfare, becoming what she perceives as an equal partner in his mission. Although Satoko is emboldened by this new bout of noble teamwork, the marriage still disintegrates, in a manner I’m honestly still mulling over. Nevertheless, I found such decoupling extremely affecting.
Although Kurosawa made one of my favorite films of 2019/20 (To the Ends of the Earth), Wife of a Spy opens up new avenues for discussing the director’s oft-touted classicism, perhaps more than anything he’s released in the last decade. Across social media and numerous publications, you’ll find Kurosawa referred to as a disciple of a specific school of filmmaking, one that informally counts Don Siegel, John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg and even Robert Zemeckis as members. This influence is manifest in unfussy visuals that are still wound tight, with every inch of screen space incorporated perfectly into the unfolding action.
However, Wife of a Spy encourages new comparisons: our editor, Ruairí McCann remarked on its Feuillade-esque flourishes (masks, malleable identities and jewel thieves!), and at one point Yusaku comments on the quality of the “new” Kenji Mizoguchi. This latter point got me thinking about Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (released in 1939; perhaps it’s the film Yusaku is referring to?), wherein a kabuki actor enacts a romance with his infant brother’s wetnurse against his family’s wishes. He drags her with him across Japan, and despite her protestations and numerous escapes, he always ropes her back in; their peripatetic lifestyle contributes to her ailing, and the film concludes with her death. Considered a feminist director, Mizoguchi spoke of the ways in which Japanese women were isolated from progressive ideals and movements of the time, and this is something that I think holds true in Wife of a Spy, with Satoko being abandoned by Yusaku, living out the end of the war in a poorly appointed sanitorium. Did Yusaku save her by carrying out his mission alone? Kurosawa doesn’t explicitly say, but watching Satoko cry alone on the beach at the film’s close plays as plangently pointed nevertheless.
But what about you Ryan? Did you find this an affirmation of Kurosawa’s classicist tendencies, or this an example of him breaking new ground?
I’m very excited to be discussing Wife of a Spy with you as well! Your invocation of classicism in relation to Kurosawa is an interesting one, and a reading I hadn’t necessarily considered. While films like To the Ends of the Earth — also one of my favorite films of the past few years — have helped dispel his reputation as just a director of horror, in many ways cinephilia is still catching up to Kurosawa and the stylistic and thematic diversity that he has displayed from film to film, and it’s in some ways difficult for me to accurately judge if he’s breaking new ground because I’m still in that position to a certain extent. Your description of his tight and unfussy visual style is accurate, and on display in multiple forms throughout Wife of a Spy: the clean widescreen compositions, frequently juggling foreground and background, are as sharp as ever, and there’s even a few crucial occurrences of digitally emulated 9.5mm amateur filmmaking, which executes the climactic action in the film-within-the-film in a slowly panning take across a cavernous warehouse.
That being said, I get the sense that classicism only partly describes Kurosawa’s style. Implicit in his oeuvre’s wide-ranging interests is his ability to evoke many other genres within a single film on both a macro and micro level, especially in the past half-decade, a tendency which reads as much more idiosyncratic than the classical might suggest, and which frequently extends to his frames, full of possibility and portent that a Spielberg or a Carpenter might not communicate so constantly. Much of the power of To the Ends of the Earth lies in its mutation through various modes — behind-the-scenes, travelogue, even horror — before arriving at its final stage of self-discovery, Journey to the Shore is predicated on its cross between implied horror and romance (for both one’s partner and one’s chosen community), and Creepy and Before We Vanish use horror and alien invasion, respectively, as vehicles for particularly strange comedies of remarriage.
As you alluded to before, Wife of a Spy appears to be going in this trajectory before suddenly pivoting, but that very pivot is part of what makes the film such a knotty and strange object, which even extends to its production. The film was originally made for television, a realm in which Kurosawa has worked numerous times across his career, and two versions were created: a television version, which we both watched and which runs at 30 frames per second, and a theatrical version, which runs at 24 frames per second and apparently has a different aspect ratio and color grade. Before we started, you remarked to me about the strangeness of the frame rate here and how it interfaces with the period setting, would you like to elaborate?
There’s a wonderful frisson derived from shooting a period piece at 30 frames per second, a wedding of conceit and form that is ostensibly incompatible; not that looking for the cracks and inconsistencies in the period veneer of a specific project is a worthwhile endeavor, but something about the almost blinding clarity of the image heightens the risk regardless. But this is Kurosawa we’re talking about here, an indisputable master of mise-en-scène. A modest interview subject, the director still deflects praise over his creative methods to instead tout a serendipitous and pragmatic combination of circumstances, and the same has held over for Wife of a Spy. The film toggles between only a handful of locations, a decision arrived at to lessen production costs. We become familiar––or so we think; Kurosawa is a reliable disrupter of our perceived intimate understanding of spaces––with these settings, considering that aforementioned clarity: the way the sun beams into an otherwise sepulchral backroom, or the arrangement of furniture in the interrogation room, all these formal details are ingrained in our memory as we accrue more visual detail. Present also are those signature lighting and architectural tics of the director: the dilapidated, overgrown meeting place of Satoko and Yasaku’s where they discuss their newly forged partnership (reminiscent of Seventh Code), or the warehouse that occupies that unnerving, 9.5mm archival footage; the repeated bus ride, that looks as if it’s floating within the clouds, it’s windows filled out with harsh white light (think of the similar bus ride in Cure, or the artificial magic hour light cast around the couple’s car near the end of Before We Vanish).
Kurosawa has always been an undaunted, if subtle, cartographer of the contemporaneous. Cure, Pulse, Loft, Daguerreotype, all these films are inextricable from the period in which they’re made––Pulse being the most obvious example. Wife of a Spy’s frame rate was yet another decision outside Kurosawa’s control, but the point still stands: a hypermodern mode of image capturing applied to a historical tale is truly fascinating, once it moves beyond its initially imparted disorientation. Is this the kind of verisimilitude period recreations should aspire to? Kurosawa’s own caginess doesn’t necessarily offer a response, but his film nevertheless presents a platonic ideal of the relationship between what were previously thought to be opposed filmmaking means. Perhaps this is what I meant by breaking new ground: Kurosawa’s unfussiness––as we’ve come to call it––has yielded a pretty airtight visual palette. Wife of a Spy is no different in this manner, but it takes a different path to achieve it, which is quite a notable development in of itself.
But what about you Ryan? How did you find yourself responding to these technical aspects of the film?
I’m so glad you noted the bus ride in particular; while this is by no means the only stylistic trait common to Kurosawa’s films, I’ve always been extremely attracted to his use of blatant, “anachronistic” rear projection in car rides. He once characterized this use in an interview as aiding the sense of transformation that the corresponding conversations engender, reflecting the fundamental irrelevance of the exterior surroundings, and while his methods aren’t quite as blatant here, that framing certainly applies. As for other technical aspects, the specific citation of a use of a handful of locations, however motivated by budget, is an interesting one, and one that marks yet another interesting development for Kurosawa. His recent output, save for the 2016 pseudo-diptych of Creepy and Daguerrotype, has largely been marked by road films, or at the very least a constant shifting in locations to reflect a change in character, most obviously explicit in To the Ends of the Earth, which itself was commissioned on the anniversary of Japanese-Uzbek diplomatic relations.
Indeed, Wife of a Spy is a film in large parts about the inability to travel, and the means by which Satoko and Yusaku consciously or unconsciously cope with this state of affairs: Taiji disapproves of their penchant for Western clothes and whiskey, and the threat of closing borders between Japan and Hong Kong, China, and the United States forms a significant backbone of the film’s urgency. In this light, the familiarity of these recurring locations is both a comfort and a trap, and one that Kurosawa alters at the most unexpected moments, with both means previously established — the chess set that Satoko knocks over in the safe room — and startlingly unfamiliar — the dream sequence in the bedroom, accomplished with just an out-of-place person and hazy purple lighting.
Tied into this sense of mutable spaces is the control that we both find in Kurosawa, and, especially in these two latest films, the struggle for autonomy that the central characters seek to assert in the face of nebulous obstacles. For all of his eerie calm authority, Taiji only serves as a figurehead for the wider Japanese government forces, which exert far more of a palpable threat despite its seeming nonexistence. Of course, Yusaku rejects even this, seeing his opponent as not Japan itself, but as injustice itself.
What did you make of this specific categorization, Patrick, of Yusaku disavowing the term spy, and how it factors into Satoko’s actions and the title?
The mention of restricted travel is an important one; your broaching of the topic made me realize another of the film’s dialectical relationships, that of the reference to relatively far-flung locales (Manchuria, San Francisco) to the same handful of settings the characters themselves orbit. We never leave Japan, but the film itself is predicated on just that, and the narrative is even spurred by Taiji’s arrest of a British silk merchant in its opening minutes. This circuitous, purgatorial orbit around these spaces is attributed to the (budget motivated) set design you mentioned: even as characters bounce back and forth between places, each specific location feels suffocatingly isolated from the last, as if this is all transpiring within some alternate realm where movement is diffuse and unguaranteed.
This figures greatly into Yusaku’s staunch distinctions between espionage and justice. Kurosawa’s characters operate from within the film’s catalyzing features, taking stock of their respective scenarios on a moment-to-moment basis, and thus, don’t fall back on some sort of genre lexicon to explicate the supernatural, the emotional, or in the case of this film, the political. Watching a Kurosawa film is to partake in a particular descent into disquieting inscrutability, with no preexisting rulebook. However, this doesn’t initially extend to Satoko, who spends much of the first half of the film kept in the dark (occasionally visualized with expected subtlety; as we’ve mentioned, this is a shadow-rich film), and thus the snippets of information she receives foments this shallow idea of spies and deceit, which is only compounded by Taiji’s domineering patriotism. As for her role as the eponymous Wife of a Spy, I feel that the strange, anticlimactic title is elucidated by the ending, with Satoko’s abandonment unveiling the painful reality in which she is not an equal of her husband, despite her intentions and aspired partnership.
Kurosawa has surveyed this disparity before: the protagonist of Creepy repeatedly denies his wife’s resoundingly reasonable requests to not have the extremely discomfiting neighbor over for dinner, and this one-way communication pushes the film to its careening climax; even in Cure, Kōji Yakusho throws himself into the central murder case, distracting himself from his sick wife at home. As seems to be the most consistent throughline of Wife of a Spy we’ve traced, Kurosawa makes subtle modulations to these prior frameworks: those aforementioned films retain a relative bleakness, but this newest one allows some sun to break through, via Satoko’s own realization of the horrors being committed in Manchuria by the Japanese government and her subsequent, vocal commitment to her husband’s cause, a change of heart that’s all the more affecting for the nationalistic jargon she’d hitherto espoused elsewhere in the film.
I think that’s all for me at this point Ryan, but before closing, I’d like to know how the film generally impacted you emotionally. There are definitely multiple ways to read the final act––is there a specific feeling it left you with?
As you pointed out, Kurosawa draws a clear distinction between Yusaku’s steadfast sense of political moralism and Satoko’s evolving, piecemeal conversion to his cause, and it’s important to note that he takes the former’s position as almost an a priori for his character, something that the latter and the viewer have to take for granted in order to facilitate her transformation. Given this delineation of character and viewpoint, it’s entirely reasonable for me to conclude that Kurosawa intends for the viewer to recognize and sympathize with both of their perspectives on Yusaku’s final action. In simultaneously betraying and sparing Satoko from furthering his personal crusade, he performs an act entirely in keeping with the shroud of uncertainty and ambiguity that cloaks all of Wife of a Spy, one that both puts down Satoko and functions as an act of love, even of sacrifice given his near-certain demise in the line of duty.
That image of Yusaku arguably brings the film full circle and serves as an immensely disquieting yet satisfying ending in and of itself, which is why the final fifteen minutes still puzzle me, in ways that generally feel productive and quite moving. Leaping ahead to the end of the war to find Satoko pretending to be insane in an institution before she is jolted out by bombers. It, like Yusaku’s final action, folds in multiple archetypes and acts into a single image: the mad and abandoned woman, the cunning survivor. My good friend Evan Morgan brought in the Mizoguchi reference you mentioned up front to suggest a kinship with his post-war miniature epic Women of the Night (1948), with its final exorcism of women’s grief amid unimaginable circumstances. Indeed, Kurosawa’s vision of a war-torn Tokyo, now populated only by women driven out of their minds, is every bit as apocalyptic as the ending of Before We Vanish, with almost nothing visible of the outside world except flames.
Then there is the beach, which Satoko runs pell-mell across before collapsing into a puddle of tears, as Kurosawa executes an uncharacteristic (for this film) crane up, pulling the viewer’s gaze away from the broken woman to the crashing waves and shadowed sky. While the somewhat perfunctory intertitles do confirm that she eventually made it to America, there’s pointedly no indication of that in the final images: though finally able to gaze out onto the ocean, she remains stranded on the beach, with no way of reuniting with her love. The effect on me is one of ultimate and irresolvable loss, connected to both one’s love and one’s country, and I find its combination with Kurosawa’s sense of mystery and ambiguity to be tremendously, deeply moving.
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