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Suspense in 8K: Kiyoshi Kurosawa on Wife of a Spy

Issey Takahashi and Masahiro Higashide in Wife of a Spy

Despite his association with horror films, few contemporary filmmakers have covered as much ground as Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who has shifted back and forth across genres countless times in his prolific 30+ year career. Nevertheless, his latest film, Wife of a Spy, marks his first period piece. It takes place in 1940-41, telling the story of Yūsaku Fukuhara (Issey Takahashi) and his attempts to expose his government’s atrocities in Manchuria, as well as that of his wife Satoko (Yû Aoi), torn between her husband and her country. With a script co-written by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Wife of a Spy unsurprisingly features intricate character relationships that take on new shades throughout the film, but this intricately plotted slow-burn—featuring smuggling, torture, police shakedowns and diligent planning interrupted by bouts of paranoia—is also a perfect fit for Kurosawa’s characteristically patient and unintrusive style.

Wife of a Spy also looks unlike anything else: it was originally shot in 8K at 30 frames per second for TV, but the theatrical release underwent new color grading and had its aspect ratio altered slightly (from 1.78:1 to 1.85:1) to avoid losing too much in translation. One thing that does translate cleanly, however, is the tension and dread Kurosawa summons as his protagonists, increasingly nervous but prepared to smuggle information to the United States, convert cash into jewelry and, wary of being watched, decide to split up in a crowded shopping district. In just a handful of deep focus shots, countless faces catch the camera’s eye or linger for just long enough in the background or middle-ground to provoke suspicion in our eyes, as well as those of the characters, in a sequence equally remarkable for how handsomely it lenses the city of Kobe.

With the assistance of a translator, Kurosawa spoke to Filmmaker about creating two separate versions of the film, shooting in his hometown and Hamaguchi’s feature-length Solaris made under his professorship.

Filmmaker: What motivated the differences in the aspect ratio and color grading for the theatrical version of the film?

Kurosawa: I automatically had to do this, because the TV version was in 8K, very high-resolution images. It’s just not possible to then present the same material in a theatrical medium. We had to redo all the color grading; we re-did the sound as well. But the content of the film really is not so different, so for an audience it would not feel very different.

Filmmaker: Do you prefer one version over the other?

Kurosawa: Of course I like both versions, but the film version in some ways has a calmer sense to it. I think it’s very similar to the tone and feeling of my past films. On the other hand, the 8K version, with very new technology, cannot even be watched on a regular TV. You can only watch it on a special 8K television. The image is amazing, and so is the sound. Not many people have been able to see this version because of the technology, but that version has really left a big impression on me. It’s also how I originally made the film.

Filmmaker: The movie has a very distinct look to it, especially the costumes and the production design. Was that look related to envisioning the film for 8K technology?

Kurosawa: Yes. When you look at things in 8K, I still had to think about how I can make it look real. 8K is very very clear. When things are made up for it, you can tell very easily; it looks like a craft. With the costumes, production design, even the make-up, I was very aware that you could see when things were fake. That’s going to affect the look in both versions. I didn’t have a huge budget for this film, but it was all hand-crafted. I worked very hard to skillfully craft this.

Filmmaker: This film is being compared to Hitchcock, especially to Torn Curtain. Was that a conscious influence?

Kurosawa: I of course love Hitchcock movies, but really did not want my film to be compared to Hitchcock’s movies. At the end of the day, though, there is so much suspense in the film, and I think when people see that kind of suspense they think about Hitchcock. I was really trying hard not to think about Hitchcock. In the end, maybe I couldn’t avoid it, but I was trying to suppress Hitchcock deep down in my heart.

Filmmaker: Is that generally the case for you when making other films as well? You try not to think too much about other films and filmmakers?

Kurosawa: Yes. When I was young—because I am, after all, a big film fan—I always wanted to make films that would show off the kinds of films I liked. I wanted to show that to other people and appeal to them. Those are the kinds of films I used to make. It felt good to be making films like that, and I think if you are also a fan of those films it can be fun to find those influences. But if you are not a fan of those films, I think it actually becomes a distraction. It makes it harder for a lot of people to enter the fiction film world. I started to think it is perhaps an unpleasant feeling for people who don’t understand or like those films.

But given that I am a film fan from the bottom of my heart, if I am not conscious of this, I naturally end up getting closer to the films I like. I really try, consciously, not to be referential of other films and filmmakers. When I am writing my scripts, I actually try not to watch films because of how easily I can be influenced by films I like.

Filmmaker: So, what has it been like returning to Cure all these years later? Are there things along those lines that you notice in it?

Kurosawa: I heard, just recently, that Cure is getting screened again in New York. I did not know that was happening. I don’t watch my past films, mainly because nothing good ever comes out of doing that. Sometimes I might watch a past film of mine and think “Oh no, I made such a terrible film” and feel really sad about the fact. Or what if I think, “Oh wow, I made a masterpiece?,” and then feel really depressed about my filmmaking today? I don’t want to feel those emotions, so I don’t watch my past films. The last time I watched Cure was about ten years ago.

I’m very glad people all over the world continue to watch Cure and that I am known for that film. It makes me very happy. But that film was made twenty years ago. Given how much time has passed, it feels very separate, like it’s away from me. I feel no responsibility for that film anymore. I haven’t rewatched it in a long time. Perhaps I will watch it again in the future, but not anytime soon.

Filmmaker: What appealed to you about working with former students on this screenplay?

Kurosawa: The two people I worked with were Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Tadashi Nohara. They worked together writing this script and provided me with the seed of this film. They were both my students, but after they graduated, I continued to have a relationship with both of them, so I didn’t really regard them as past students. To me they are just young filmmakers I am close with. In terms of the script, it’s very original. I would say 80% of the power in this film, in this script, comes from them. It’s not an adaptation of anything. It’s not based on a real story or real incident. I didn’t ask for this story; in fact, they created it from nothing. I’m very grateful to have kept up my relationship with them over these years.

Filmmaker: Did they write the script thinking of you as the person to direct it?

Kurosawa: Simply put, Hamaguchi made a film a few years ago, Happy Hour, set in Kobe, a port city in Japan. Coincidentally, I’m actually from Kobe. One day they asked me if I would like to shoot something in Kobe as well. I told them “OK, I will shoot something in Kobe, but you need to think of the story.” So, I said yes to the directing, but it was also required that we shoot in Kobe, because they had connections with the place through Happy Hour.

Filmmaker: Was there something special about shooting in your hometown? There are beautiful extended exteriors throughout the film.

Kurosawa: Yes, but although I am from Kobe, and go back a lot and like it, I never had strong feelings or thoughts of wanting to shoot there. I don’t know why. I know some people like to shoot in their birthplaces or where their families are, but personally I have never had that thought. Filmmaking, for me, never had anything to do with my birthplace. It’s really just—as I mentioned earlier—that Hamaguchi and Nohara came to me and asked if I want to shoot a film there. I thought that if they were going to offer me that, I would give it a go. But to be quite honest, since the film is set in the past, in an older era, I didn’t feel like I was shooting in my birthplace necessarily. I just felt like I was making a new fiction film from scratch.

Filmmaker: I know this is a little off-the-wall, but I need to ask: when you were Hamaguchi’s professor, you assigned his class to adapt Solaris. Can you talk about Hamaguchi’s screenplay and what the resulting film was like?

Kurosawa: Hamaguchi is so popular these days, so I get many questions about him. But yes, I did assign him and five others who were aspiring filmmakers—students of mine—to adapt Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, and to use Solaris to write a script. I’m a huge fan of Stanislaw Lem’s original Solaris story, and I know filmmakers like Tarkovsky and Soderbergh have adapted that into films. Those are wonderful films, but I am, at the end of the day, a huge fan of the original, and as a huge fan of the original there are some things that I am not quite satisfied with. To Hamaguchi and the students, I said “Adapt something in a different way from Soderbergh and Tarkovsky. Bring out what’s so amazing about the original.” That’s the challenge I wanted to give them. Then we came back and read all the scripts, and Hamaguchi’s was just at a completely different level. It was incredibly interesting. When we read it, we said “Let’s turn this into a film.”

So, with a crew of only students, we made this film together. It turned out to be a wonderful, wonderful film. It’s a kind of film that would remind you of his current style today. There were many complicated character relationships within the story. Those, of course, also existed in Lem’s original story. But at the same time, it’s a sci-fi film set in a spaceship. It has really strong fictive elements. Today, Hamaguchi’s films are dramas set in more realistic worlds, but because Solaris is set in this very unique, otherworldly place, it was different in that sense.

It was this incredibly strange but very original film. Sadly, because it was a student film, we did not clear the rights. It’s not possible for us to release it at this time. But now that Hamaguchi is getting much more famous, maybe one day the rights can be cleared and it can be released.

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