Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s love-letter to classic genre films radically integrates a stark stylistic departure from his inspirations.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy is a fascinating combination of old-school genre filmmaking and the dour, fatalistic sensibility of its director. Set in WWII Japan, Spy follows Satoko Fukuhara (Yu Aoi) as she grapples with the unsavory aspects of her beloved country’s imperial regime. Torn between her fealty to country (represented chiefly by military policeman Taiji, portrayed by Masahiro Higashide) and love of her Ally-sympathizing husband (Issey Takahashi), Satoko is faced with a series of no-win scenarios, essentially pitting one character against the two poles of national loyalty and disloyalty.
As the story of a spy and his unsure confidante, the film harkens back to the themes of tested romantic loyalty in 30s and 40s Hollywood spy films (both von Sternberg’s Dishonored and Hitchcock’s Notorious come to mind) while defying strict homage. Kurosawa’s film is firmly set-bound, incorporating classical medium shots and recreating at least one of the most quoted shots in cinema history (the act of peering, in profile, through a small eyehole, a la Psycho), but his particular sense of doomed tonal control and reliance on harsh natural lighting from his digital cameras immediately sets his approach at odds with the beautiful deep-blacks of classical black-and-white cinema. To further drive home this distance, Kurosawa even has his film-director character name check director Kenji Mizoguchi, a legendary visual stylist whose command of black-and-white contrast was unspeakably beautiful.
The digital shine and the easy-to-follow love triangle aspect of the script make Spy a very accessible, if slightly askew entry point into Kurosawa’s cinema. The director of cult horror-inflected mood pieces Pulse and Cure is best known for chillier, more baroque films, where Spy is very forward with supplying motivation and at first glance lacks his earlier films’ sense of rhythm. The brightness of his sets, however, takes on more of a doomed quality as the drama plays out, until suddenly you’re trapped with the grand-scale horrors of war with nowhere to turn to and no chance of looking away. This is deep-focus cinematography at its finest, providing a wealth of background detail and at times seating the camera just a foot or two further back from its subjects than is comfortable. Kurosawa’s sense of unnerving formal tension is still very much at play here.
In terms of modulating an unfussy script with unfussy camera placements– usually wide enough to describe two figures in conflict, moving as necessary to accommodate the performers and incorporate the high artifice of Kurosawa’s glossy mis-en-scene- Kurosawa carefully visualizes the script’s various confrontations. Yusaku and Taiji’s earliest scene together throws Taiji, with his back to the camera, against Yusaku in increasingly tight arrangements as it reveals he is threatening his friend; in a later scene, Yusaku is made massive by proximity to the camera as he goes to question his wife, her head severed from her body by his shoulder, impossibly small against and apart from him. In one of Kurosawa’s best flourishes, the husband and wife hold each other in the right-third of a composition otherwise locked onto an expansive, pitch-black hallway. Wife of a Spy concerns itself with snares, best-laid-plans and potential moral outcomes undercut by the abyss, the march of time, and the end of the war we all know is coming. Kurosawa points us there in broad strokes but achieves the same solely in the way he blocks his actors.
Wife of a Spy is a thoroughly engaging work from a singular talent, cutting against both Kurosawa’s own style and the style of his various influences in galvanizing ways. While it may not be the director’s finest work in a 40+ year career, even Spy’s most workmanlike qualities showcase his truly cinematic mind.
Wife of a Spy is coming to US theaters and virtual cinemas starting September 17, 2021.
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