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Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa nabbed another career honor Sunday, winning the Venice Film Festival’s best director award for Wife of a Spy, the first period drama of his prolific filmography.
Set in 1940 Kobe, Japan, the film stars Issey Takahashi (Kill Bill, Shin Godzilla) as a debonair silk merchant whose cosmopolitan world view is on a collision course with Japan’s advancing militarism and stifling social conformity. Trapped between the duties of a wife and a citizen is his adoring wife Satoko (Yu Aoi, Birds Without Names), whose desire to truly know her husband sets up the film’s many twists and ambiguities.
The Hollywood Reporter‘s critic described the film as “an absorbing, exotic, well-paced thriller with moments of disconcerting realism and horror.”
Kurosawa, whose previous festival honors include best director wins at Cannes and Rome, connected with THR via Zoom prior to his Venice triumph for a brief chat about Wife of a Spy‘s slippery ambiguities and what drew him to tell a story set amid Japan’s painful wartime past.
You’ve worked across a lot of genres in your long career, but this is your first period film. How did you approach it?
It’s actually been an aspiration of mine to do a period piece from long ago. And there have been a couple of occasions in which we trie to bring this to fruition, but there were always budgeting issues and so forth. So it felt like I finally, finally had the chance to make my period movie.
It was very challenging, because of course there was so much that we were picturing. It wasn’t unprecedented in Japan, but it was quite a challenge to do a period piece because we did have a limited budget, and we couldn’t build all that many sets. So we had to find places in Japan that reflected the early 1940s, which is a big challenge in the modern Japan of today. Nearly everything has changed.
What attracted you to telling a story during this fraught and painful period in Japanese history?
Well, the most prominent reason for picking this period was that I wanted to depict how individuals and society react to each other. Does an individual continue to live within the limits of society, or does that individual derail himself or herself from society? I felt that the early 1940s in Japan, was a period in which there was an extremely stark contrast between the individual and the movement of society as a whole.
As you know, most of my films have depicted contemporary times. In my past past work, I think you can see this same motif of the individual and his relationship to the streams of society. But it’s very difficult to highlight this contrast in contemporary society, unless you use a really heighten-reality premise or plot — because the circumstances of our times are mostly transparent to us in the present moment. I thought that by doing a period piece, on the other hand — especially during the extreme moment of the 1940s Japan — it would be easy to set this theme but still ground it in what we knew was the reality then.
Yu Aoi’s performance as the wife is impressively layered, as is the character she portrays. How would you describe her character’s fundamental motivation in the film, as well as the changes she’s forced to undergo?
That is a very good question, a compelling question. But it may be hard for me to give an exact answer. I say that because it actually wasn’t me who wrote the screenplay. As you probably know, it actually was mostly written by two former students of mine, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and Tadashi Nohara. So I discovered Satoko as she was already written. When I read the screenplay, I had the same kind of reaction: Her actions are often contradictory. But even though I couldn’t comprehend what her core motivations were, I felt instinctively that there was a truth to the character. I also sensed that this type of female protagonist was something that we see time and again in the older Japanese films, the old masterpieces.
I felt that the story required this kind of character, because when a country marches towards war, everything gets enveloped in a kind of absurdity. I thought that the situation required a female protagonist, like Aoi Yu plays, someone who is very sensitive, but also courageous — someone who can seem lost from one action to another, but who is also very determined. Unless it’s that kind of character, I don’t think she could realistically climb over these extreme walls she is faced with.
So, I kind of gave up on the idea of trying to completely comprehend the character myself. I rather left it to Aoi Yu’s devices, let’s say, to approach the character in the way that she understood. She seemed to really bring the character into herself and inhabited her very freely. I’m 100 percent satisfied with what she did.
The characters are engulfed in ambiguity. In the first half, you’re wondering whether the wife is a loyal wife or a loyal citizen to wartime Japan, and which she’ll choose — her husband’s purported humanism or loyalty to Japan. In the second half, ambiguity cloaks the husband — he is an idealist and a cosmopolitan, as he says, or perhaps a more cunning operative? When you’re directing a film like this, do you have your own personal answers to these questions, or do you simply work to maintain the uncertainty?
As you say, it is indeed a very ambiguous setting, story arc and ending. It would, however, be foolish for the director to say, “This is what you should think.” The ambiguity is something that I actually share. As we started shooting, I hadn’t arrived at my own conclusions as to what these characters were motivated by, or where they were headed. As we progressed with the shooting, I would, time and again, regurgitate what their alternate intentions might be, and what it entailed for the story arc. But in the end, one conclusion I came to was the fact that this is of course fiction, and this is of course a piece of entertainment film. So I presume that the simplest answer is that they are headed towards the future with a sense of hope, in search of happiness. As is written [in the brief epilogue] before the end credits begin, there’s a possibility. As Japanese citizens, we have indeed overcome wartime Japan and found a way to thrive in contemporary times. My personal hope for the characters would be that they have the same chance at happiness after the war has ended.
I can’t really think of any other recent Japanese film that addresses Japan’s war crimes during World War II in such a direct and forceful way. The moments about chemical weapon experimentation in Manchuria are shocking and disturbing. Do you think the film will be perceived differently by Japanese audiences and audiences outside of Japan, because of the differences in the way that history tends to be handled? As I said, my perception is that it’s rare for contemporary Japanese film or television to confront these atrocities head-on.
I suppose we’ll have to wait and see how the international audience reacts to this. I really don’t have a clear sense of how much the international audience knows about wartime Japanese history — how much they actually know about the crimes that were committed. But if these horrible crimes come as a shock, for audiences inside Japan or internationally, I hope the film will at least be a catalyst for people to look back into Japanese history and discover for themselves what actually happened.