Wife of a Spy won the Best Director prize for Kurosawa Kiyoshi at Venice in 2020. It’s an unusual film in several ways. Kurosawa, well-known mainly as a horror/crime genre director from the 1990s and early in his career in the 1980s as a director of pinku eiga and roman porno films for Nikkatsu before the studio’s collapse, now offers a different kind of genre film distributed by the revived Nikkatsu. Wife of a Spy is a co-production between independents and NHK, the PSB (public service broadcaster) in Japan. NHK required the production to use 8K digital cameras so that the film would become an experimental/promotional vehicle for the technology. I didn’t know this until after the screening but I did notice that the HD print streaming on MUBI was sometimes very cold and bright, but at other times cinematographer Sasaki Tatsunosuke used shallow focus to blur backgrounds and sometimes low light (?) to produce a grainier image.
The only other Kurosawa film that I’ve seen which shares some of the same elements is Tokyo Sonata (Japan 2008). That film too had appeared at major festivals and was treated as an arthouse film for cinema distribution whereas Kurosawa’s genre films were generally only on DVD in the UK. Like Tokyo Sonata the new film is a melodrama of sorts but it also plays with the spy film, the mystery film, the marriage drama etc. The setting is the city of Kobe (Kurosawa’s home town), Japan’s second-largest port on the Bay of Osaka in 1940-41. Fukuhara Yusaku is a wealthy and still relative young man, running his own textile trading company. The first few scenes introduce the main characters. In a long shot sequence, a British businessman is arrested by the kenpeitai (military police responsible for security). An angry young man, Fukuhara’s nephew Fumio, protests. Then in his office Fukuhara receives a visit from the ‘squad leader’ of the kenpeitai. This turns out to ‘Taiji’, a childhood friend of Fukuhara’s wife Satoko, offering a ‘friendly’ but formal warning about the arrested spy who is a client of Fukahara. Finally we meet Satoko, masked and stealing something from a safe. She is caught by a young man, who turns out to be Fumio. We hear ‘one more time’ and realise that this an amateur film shoot organised by Yusaku.
The quartet introduced in this way offer the basis for a family melodrama of some kind Taiji still has feelings for Satoko, though his embrace of the militarism of the 1930s is a problem. The real ‘disruption’ which pushes the narrative forward is Yusaku’s decision to visit Manchuria on business in early 1941, taking Fumio with him. After his return Satoko becomes suspicious when she realises that something happened in Manchuria, which by 1941 was formally a puppet state of Imperial Japan and one which after years of Japanese occupation and repression of the Chinese population was seen as a valuable colonial territory in Japan. At this point it is perhaps helpful to correct some of the initial reviews of the film. Satoko is not an ‘actress’, she is a bored wife of a wealthy man. 1940 is not ‘before the Second World War’, Japan had been active in different ways in China since 1905 and the full-scale Sino-Japanese War began in 1937. Elsewhere in East Asia, events were influenced by the war in Europe, so at one point in the film, Satoko and Yusaku go the cinema and watch a newsreel in which a large Japanese fleet arrives in Saigon in June 1941, ostensibly to help support Vichy France to defend Indochina. The ‘Pacific War’ didn’t start until Pearl Harbour but much had already happened by then.
The critics liked the film at Venice but there have been negative comments since. Some of these refer to the slow pacing of many scenes. The Hitchcock references used in MUBI’s introduction don’t help even if I can see why Hitchcock is invoked. The image of Satoko at the safe reminds me of Marnie (1964) but the obvious reference is to Notorious and the marriage between Ingrid Bergman’s and Claude Rains’ characters. The title ‘Wife of a Spy’ also perhaps suggests a Hitchcock narrative since the famous Hitchcock ‘romance thriller’ often hinges on the trust or lack of it between the two central characters. But in the end the reference isn’t very useful. I think there is a real emotional depth to some of the scenes between Satoko, Yusaku and Taiji. I suppose there is even a ‘MacGuffin’ of sorts in the form of a document Yusaku brings back from Manchuria and also a murder mystery at one point. Even so, Kurosawa seems to be attempting something else. Whatever possessed large numbers of Japanese to embrace militarism in the 1930s comes up here against personal relationship and codes of honour. There is also a strong sense of the dilemma for the Japanese middle-class (i.e. those with some control over their lives because of social position and/or wealth). Should they fight the West or embrace its culture? Taiji warns Satoko and Yusaku that their attachment to Western dress (and drinking Scotch not Japanese whisky) marks them out. The only escape for the couple is to trust each other and try to get to the US. But the Pacific War is on the horizon. Can they get out in time? The ending of the film will no doubt frustrate some audiences but it seems appropriate to me, ending on a beach.
Wife of a Spy works for me, primarily I think, because of the strong central performances by Aoi Yu as Satako and Takahashi Issey as Yusaku, who manage to make the marriage believable. The script is by Hamaguchi Ryûsuke and Nohara Tadashi, younger writers who I think have an earlier connection with Kurosawa. The music by Nagaoka Ryosuke has also been criticised but I found it effective. I’m intrigued most I think because of the ‘feel’ of the film as historical drama. I don’t think there are as many Japanese films about this period as there are in American or European cinemas, but I have recently noted other films from South Korea and China/Hong Kong covering the period. The 8K images have something to do with that ‘feel’, but I’m not sure what as yet. There is also the suggestion that the film could be controversial in Japan where issues about the conduct of the war, especially in China, are still sensitive. Finally, I did find some echoes of other Japanese films in Wife of a Spy. One was Grave of the Fireflies, the terrific anime from 1988, also set in Kobe. The other intriguing aspect of Wife of a Spy is the use of 9.5mm film which is central to the plot. It made me think of both the earlier Kurosawa film Cure (Japan 1997) and in some ways back to the Ringu films. I don’t want to explain these references in detail at this point but it is worth remembering that in the 1930s Japanese studios were the biggest producers of films in the world, with a studio system that rivalled Hollywood but not in export terms. Moving images had become an important part of Japanese culture and as well as the newsreel that Satoko and Yusaku watch in the cinema, there is a brief clip from the feature in the programme, a ‘Nikkatsu Talkie’, Priest of Darkness (1936) directed by Yamanaka Sadao. If you get the chance to see Wife of a Spy, I’d recommend it to you.
I had mixed feelings watching this film. I was confident it would turn out to be well-made, intelligent and probably provocative as a recent film by Japanese auteur Kurosawa Kiyoshi, but I started it without too much prior reading. My first thought was about a Zhang Yimou film, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (China-Hong Kong Japan 2005). In that film, an older Japanese man undertakes a trip into a remote part of China in order to record a performance by a local folk artist on behalf of his son, an ethnologist who is too ill to finish his work. In Kurosawa’s film, a young Japanese woman works as the presenter on a reality TV travel programme and her latest brief is to visit Uzbekistan where her producer-director hopes to find interesting local attractions around which he can construct brief clips of his presenter interacting with an alien culture and its people. She leaves behind her boyfriend, a firefighter.
My initial sense of trepidation proved to be justified. This is a strange film which seems to be pursuing several different possible narratives and different approaches which didn’t really come together for me. That isn’t to say that there weren’t some interesting sequences as well as some sections which certainly seemed like more familiar Kurosawa territory. We follow a small Japanese crew – a producer-director and a two man camera and sound crew plus the presenter and an Uzbek-Japanese translator. In their quest for interesting material they search for a possibly mythical fish in a large lake and try some authentic Uzbek cooking in a roadside diner. In both cases, the Uzbek translator Temur (Adiz Rajabov) sets up the scenes with puzzled local people – a fisherman and a woman cooking in her diner. In both cases the presenter struggles to perform her task, putting on the proverbial ‘brave face’ for the camera, developed into an over-cheery performance. We realise fairly quickly that the presenter, Yoko (Maeda Atsuko) is going to be the central character in whatever narratives emerge. This J-pop star has built up a long list of film and TV credits in the last few years and I found her performance quite remarkable as she appears childlike one moment and sophisticated and elegant the next. But perhaps it would be useful to think about Japan and Uzbekistan first before grappling with what else Kurosawa offers us in this film.
The most damning review of the film comes from Tony Rayns in Sight & Sound. Bluntly, he sees this as sentimental twaddle but he does make some useful points about Japanese culture and its post-war relationship with overseas travel. This film is a co-production between Uzbekistan and Japan and it celebrates 25 years of diplomatic relations between the countries and 70 years since one of Tashkent’s most famous sights, the Navoi Theatre, was decorated by Japanese POWs (captured by Soviet forces at the end of the Second World War). This latter event is worked into the narrative in the closing section. These kinds of commissions are always problematic for auteur filmmakers, who clearly don’t want to make a banal ‘official’ film. Kurosawa’s script here tries to turn the references to the Navoi Theatre into a kind of personal quest/triumph for the presenter Yoko and on that score I think I agree with Rayns that it doesn’t work. I’m no judge of Japanese popular music but I felt that Maeda Atsuko’s voice just isn’t up to the demands Kurosawa places on it (which include performing in a fantasy sequence).
Uzbekistan must be one of the least known and least understood countries on Earth as far as much of Western culture is concerned – and indeed, Japanese culture. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film set in Uzbekistan before (though neighbouring Kazakhstan has produced several seen internationally). Kurosawa’s film features mountain landscapes, the capital, Tashkent, and the second largest city, Samarkand, the historic city on the Silk Road. Tashkent in particular seems like a city combining Islamic and Soviet architecture in distinctive ways and the Russian influence in the country, which lasted for perhaps 180 years, seems to match the British presence in India over a similar period. Rayns refers to the ‘primitivism’ of Uzbek culture with those scare quotes underlined to present a critique of Japanese attitudes. This does raise the question of the different elements in the film and ‘how’, or rather ‘if’, they can come together. Is the film primarily a critique of those reality TV shows in which a celebrity presenter travels around ‘exotic’ locations? Or is it a character study about a young woman in a difficult job who feels alone in a foreign country? Yoko is certainly presented as being apart from the four men who make up the rest of the TV group. There is a suggestion that she is the star of the group but she is treated badly and arguably subject to abuse by the insufferable director who seems indifferent to the potentially dangerous situations he pushes her into. On the other hand, she doesn’t really attempt to bond with the other three guys who are generally supportive. The most successful part of the film for me (apart from the glimpses of life in Uzbekistan through the camerawork of Ashizawa Akiko) are those scenes in which we feel Yoko’s sense of being alone in an anonymous hotel or on the streets of a crowded and unfamiliar city. This rang true and I’ve certainly experienced similar feelings. But Yoko’s unguided trips, which turn into three separate ‘adventures’, also offer Kurosawa the opportunity to develop his more usual unsettling atmosphere associated with horror films as Yoko stumbles down darkened streets or runs through a crowded bazaar. It could be argued that these generic touches support the drama of Yoko’s story but in a way they seem to me to undermine the attempted critique of the ‘Japanese abroad’ or the reality TV crew whose ignorance simply makes us angry.
I think I’m out of step with many of the reviews I read which generally praise the film. As I’ve indicated, there are many good things about it, but it doesn’t seem to add up. I think you have to be very careful with this kind of culture clash narrative. Though Japanese tourists in Asia carry the legacy of Imperial aggression in the 1930s/40s (which has still not been worked through enough in some countries), the post 1945 generations are usually accepted as being non-aggressive with no specific agenda. On the other hand they wouldn’t want to be seen as ignorant, insensitive and non-caring. Kurosawa’s characters are in danger of fitting those descriptions, especially the director and to some extent Yoko. On the other hand, Uzbekistan has an authoritarian political system and is one of the worst countries for human rights issues, including slavery in its cottonfields, a very long-running issue. Kurosawa was taking on a very difficult task. I’m not sure what could have improved the film but his approach – discovering things as the shoot went on, might not have been the best way to approach the production.
To a certain extent, I did some research about Uzbekistan, but prior to the shooting, I didn’t go to Uzbekistan and look for the details. If I really wanted to learn about Uzbekistan in detail, I’d have to do it for years. I’d have to spend time living there and learning the language. But that was not my aim for this particular film. My aim was not to make something particular to Uzbekistan, but something that could happen anywhere, to anybody—myself included—somebody who doesn’t know anything about the country that she or he goes into, and struggles mightily at small clashes between cultures. That was my aim for this, which is why I didn’t go do research beforehand on location. (from the interview conducted by Lawrence Garcia for MUBI Notebook, September 2019)
MUBI recently offered a Kurosawa Kiyoshi mini-season and I managed to catch Cure, Kurosawa’s international breakthrough film, just before it fell off the 30 day rolling programme. It is available on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK from Eureka and possibly on other streaming services. Kurosawa is a major filmmaker who hasn’t been seen much in UK cinemas but he’s a firm favourite with festivals and is very highly regarded in France. In the UK he became known around 2000 with some releases in the ‘Tartan Extreme’ DVD series. I was very impressed by his 2008 prize-winner Tokyo Sonata which did get a very limited run in UK cinemas. Although it does have links to the earlier films, Tokyo Sonata seemed to many critics to be something different. The issue here (or perhaps just in the UK) is that Kurosawa began his career in what were seen as exploitation genres – ‘pink films‘, then V-cinema films (low budget, straight to video) and finally J-horror. Cure appeared in Japan just a few weeks before Nakata Hideo’s Ringu which has often been acknowledged as the film which launched a series of remakes and similar titles in South East Asia and Hollywood. (Ringu was a literary adaptation that had already been adapted for TV.) Cure does share something with Nakata’s film but in other ways it is even more complex and disturbing.
In outline, the story appears to be a familiar serial killer format but one in which gruesome murders are committed by dazed killers who don’t know each other and who seem almost unaware of what they have done. Somebody or something has caused seemingly ‘ordinary’ people to kill someone they encounter or someone they know. The detective in charge of the investigation is the lead character who has his own problems in the form of his wife who seems to have a form of amnesia. She is prone to getting lost when she goes shopping and she acts oddly in attempting to keep house. Yakusho Kôji plays the detective ‘Takabe’. He is one of the most successful Japanese actors of his generation and in 1996 had a major international success with Shall We Dansu? He has worked several times with Kurosawa Kiyoshi. In this film he wears a long gaberdine coat and his demeanour switches from complete calm to bouts of rage. He himself is overworked and getting close to a breakdown. Like the the best J-horror films there are also moments of possible hallucination and the progress of the investigation is disturbing in several ways. The narrative does not end when the suspect is caught and interrogated. Instead we move into a dénouement which includes another element similar to that in the Ring series – a scientific experiment dating from the turn of the 20th century which continues to create a ‘disturbance’ nearly a hundred years later.
I’m not going to spoil the narrative in any way – and indeed to do so with any certainty would be very difficult since the events, especially in the closing section, are presented elliptically. Instead I’ll just mention some of formal ideas and possible references. A link to Ringu is the addition of a second investigator. Whereas in Nakata’s film, the principal investigator is a female reporter who is aided by her ex-husband, here the detective is aided by an academic psychologist who is eventually able to track down details of an 1898 criminal investigation and the scientific research that became part of that investigation. The suspect is a young man who is able to compel ordinary people to kill. Why does he do this? Takabe the detective seems drawn ever more deeply into the case and we begin to worry that he might not have the mental strength to pursue it to its conclusion. The narrative is set in the Tokyo area and ranges from the beach to offices, cheap hotels, a police hut, a hospital ward etc. The final sequence almost felt like a Tarkovskian stumble through an abandoned world (I’m still mulling over Stalker) – see the image above.
J-horror was a Japanese genre that achieved significant international distribution. Kurosawa is clearly at one end of a spectrum with a heavy shading of arthouse/auteur sensibility. I do wonder how much the success of the genre is down to the general feeling of malaise in Japan during the long period of economic stagnation during the 1990s. Does this connect to the return of ghost stories? There is a suggestion of a ‘return’ of 19th century fears in Cure and a feeling of desperation and despair about contemporary society. With this film Kurosawa was hailed as a new ‘master of horror’ and I found the film extremely affective in its power to disturb. I must try to watch more.
Tokyo Sonata won the Jury Prize in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section of the Cannes Film Festival in May 2008. It must have been something of a surprise for many in the Cannes audience. Director Kurosawa Kiyoshi (born 1955) has spent a long time paying his dues and his reputation in the West is based mainly on horror films such as Pulse/Kairo (2001) and Cure (1997). However, although seen as a genre filmmaker, Kurosawa has also been celebrated as an auteur, part of a relatively young new wave of Japanese directors and someone whose films have been remade as American genre pictures at the same time as being celebrated on the festival circuit. In the UK this hasn’t meant much of a theatrical presence as yet. Tokyo Sonata will be only the second Kurosawa picture to get a release (after Pulse in 2005). The surprise is that, at first, Tokyo Sonata seems a long way away from the horror and crime films.
I think that the film is possibly an example of the ‘salaryman film’ genre. I hesitate because the term is thrown about with gay abandon by critics. The salaryman description appears to have begun to circulate in Japan during the 1930s, but perhaps becomes really important in the 1950s as the post-war economic miracle increased the number of white-collar workers at the major corporations. The definition of a salaryman is tight – seemingly only the workers in the offices of the zaibatsu or their modern incarnation in the form of keiretsu (the giant corporations such as Mitsubishi). Other white-collar professionals such as doctors, architects etc. are not ‘salarymen’ (unless, presumably, they work for the corporations). Wikipedia has a useful discussion of the term and a list of conventions for representing the social type in the media.
Outside Japan, it is perhaps the salaryman who represents the specifically Japanese business culture – even though characters with similar traits can be found in any advanced industrial economy. In the UK during the 1970s and 80s we were constantly told about the successful Japanese economic system in which the salaryman would have a job for life as long as he conformed to the expectations of his employer. This meant company loyalty, long hours, collective physical and team-building exercises etc. This was mainly treated with amusement in the UK until it became clear that Japanese companies like Toyota, Honda and Nissan were buying ailing British car companies and that all high quality manufacturing was Japanese-controlled. But just as we got used to accepting this, the Japanese economy slowed and in the 1990s entered a long period of comparative stagnation.
The salaryman has become a well-known social type, appearing in manga and anime as well as comedy films – the best-known being the 48 film Tora-san series of gentle social comedies with a central character who gets to do things that the salaryman can’t. A salaryman film could be understood in terms of the broader generic category of the shomingeki – films about ‘ordinary people’ or the ‘little man’. Critics have often cited Ozu Yasujiro as the creator of – or at least central figure associated with – this category in his time at Shochiku Studio in the 1920s. By the 1950s, however, when the salaryman concept really took hold, Ozu was mainly making films about middle-class families with family members moving outside the confines of the salaryman role.
Most of the popular salaryman films haven’t been released in the UK, but I do remember how enjoyable I found Shall We Dansu? (Japan 1996). I shudder at the memory of the terrible US remake with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez, but the original captured the boredom of office life and the terror of unconventionality, featuring a white collar worker who each night from his train window sees into an upstairs ballroom dance school. When he plucks up the courage to go in one night, he falls in love with this strange Western pursuit and with the dance teacher. The remainder of the film traces the difficulties in maintaining ‘face’ as the man moves between the dance school (and competitions) and his office and home where he doesn’t want anyone to know his secret (and certainly not his wife and daughter).
Apart from this film, I think most of my contact with salaryman culture has come from the popular novels (horror, crime etc.) that have started to become available in the UK in the last few years. Because of this, aspects of Tokyo Sonata were not so surprising for me. The film focuses on a typical nuclear family (in itself a change from the extended families of the 1950s and 1960s). Sasaki Ryûhei loses his job in the opening sequence. He is the head clerk of the ‘admin section’ of a corporation that has decided to move administration to China, where workers are just as efficient – but less expensive to hire. Ryûhei is bewildered by the swiftness of his redundancy and decides not to tell his wife, Megumi. She doesn’t have a job and is frustrated by the boredom of being at home. The couple have two sons. The older boy is about to graduate high school/junior college and is rarely home for meals etc. The younger boy develops a passionate interest in the piano – in defiance of his father’s negative attitude. The family is of course a microcosm of lower middle-class Japanese society and the film sets out to explore how the family will cope with redundancy and its impact upon the stable traditional family structure with its gendered roles and expectations about employment prospects.
The film is relatively slow with little happening on the surface, but Kurosawa’s skill enables him to gradually build up a sense of despair. It’s hard to pin down how he achieves this because it is so subtly done through camerawork, mise en scène and editing. (In the still that heads this entry, the four family members are all carefully looking at another family member who does not return the look, but looks at someone else – the family is clearly not a collective entity.) In particular, there is good use of long shots and crowd scenes, picking up on the incongruity of salarymen in suits joining queues at soup kitchens and lining up in impossible lines of applicants for the few jobs available. As the narrative develops, Kurosawa begins to explore several aspects of the salaryman type as well as some current concerns within Japanese society. Two examples are the convention that salarymen will sing in karaoke bars – neatly picked up in a job interview that Ryûhei has clearly not prepared for – and the recent controversy over the non-combatant status of the ‘Japanese Defence Force’ (which was involved in the post-invasion operation in Iraq). This latter narrative strand involves the older son in a plot development that seems quite ‘realist’ but is in fact an invention (at least I think it is!). This is a good example of the disturbing nature of the seemingly coherent narrative in which we seem to be following a kind of social realist drama, but something formal or possibly generic is tipping us the wink that it isn’t really like that. Something similar happens with the piano playing. By contrast, Megumi has an adventure which is rather more clearly represented in terms of a crime genre film (possibly wandering into Kitano Takeshi territory). This section of the narrative is played almost as black comedy and I can see some audiences not wanting to go along with this odd mixture of tones and styles. I found it intriguing and engaging but definitely disturbing. Most critics have asserted that there is nothing of the ‘supernatural’ about the film (i.e. the generic quality of Kurosawa’s ghost stories), but I’m not so sure. I’ve only seen a screener so far and I’m looking forward to seeing the film on the big screen when I can check out a couple of scenes which seemed to me to suggest the modern urban ghost story. There are also some instances of elliptical and non-linear editing which contribute to the disturbance.
Overall, I thought this was a fascinating film that seemed to say a great deal about the state of Japan today – or rather, perhaps, the state of the Japanese lower middle class.
I’ve seen the film on the cinema screen now and there a couple of things to add. First, what I thought might have been a ‘ghost’ is not, although the scene itself after a funeral is quite disturbing. Second, the film worked better on the big screen and in particular the ending which I found very emotional and the lighting and composition of the final shot was quite remarkable – almost a moment of spiritual renewal. I’ve also realised that the UK distributor of the film is Eureka, responsible for the excellent Masters of Cinema DVD series. They have a website for the film which shows the exhibition dates in the UK (and has a nice collection of stills). This is the second time I’ve seen this style of distribution with just three prints and screenings organised across the UK over several months. What I don’t understand is that the film has not been booked (according to this list) in Manchester or Edinburgh, two of the top 3 locations for specialised films outside London. This seems an odd way to promote such a wonderful film.