How to use 30 minutes with somebody you consider one of the greatest filmmakers who has ever lived? It helps that Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest, Wife of a Spy, is both emblematic of his genius and a unique example of it. Though Kurosawa’s legacy is often associated with numerous films in the horror genre, he’s an expert manipulator of genre in toto—see how Wife works the espionage picture, war story, and romantic drama on their own terms, impeccably plotted with Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Tadashi Nohara (themselves reuniting from Happy Hour). It would be enough to base a half-hour of conversation on it alone, as was my original plan.
But because 30 minutes is 30 minutes, I decided to run with the opportunity to ask Kurosawa more or less whatever I wanted to know, with respect for the flow of conversation with someone so intelligent and magnanimous. Thus what follows.
My deep thanks to Aiko Masubuchi, who provided interpretation.
The Film Stage: I was told you just shot something. May I ask what it is?
Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Yes, I can speak a little bit about it. It’s actually not a new film, necessarily; it’s for a series that’s streaming online. It’s a 30-minute drama and I’m doing it really as a job, and we just finished shooting a couple days ago.
Just one episode?
Yes. There’s a few Japanese directors involved in the project, and each is given 30 minutes to shoot a standalone drama. Then they’re putting it together as a series—that’s something I’ve just been told. I have to apologize, because we just finished shooting and I actually haven’t checked with the producer how much I’m able to say in public. So if we can leave it at that, that would be great. [Laughs]
Wife of a Spy is so impeccably plotted; it’s been a while since I’ve seen anything progress in this clean, captivating a way. I think of you as a great visual artist, but your sense of dramatic shape is equally extraordinary. Wife of a Spy covers many things—espionage, war, relationship drama—and I wonder if you have certain principles on a genre-by-genre basis. Do you think of plotting horror, science fiction, crime, etc. in distinct terms?
I don’t think there’s necessarily a very special thing I do, but plotting definitely is very important to me. It takes me many months to decide on what the plot is actually going to be, but once I decide what the plot is, I’m actually quite quick with the scriptwriting. But I do need to think, first, about what the structure of the story is going to be—what the order is going to be in the storytelling, what to show, what not to show. It’s really like putting together pieces of a puzzle, and it’s a very fun process.
And just to add to that: it doesn’t happen very often where everything goes as planned. While shooting things might pop up, different things might show up—things that I didn’t mean to express might show up. Things just happen while we’re shooting. So then, when I get to the editing room, I sort of have to renew my feelings about the film; I almost feel like I’m restarting as I go into the editing process. That’s sort of a thrilling process for me as well.
How do you trust that a new thing might work?
I have to say it’s probably a bit of instinct at work here. To be quite basic about this: I’ve watched many films over the years. As a film fan I’ve just watched many, many films, so I have this collection of thoughts and ideas in all the experiences I’ve had of watching. Then I have to trust the instincts that arise from those experiences.
I’d love to know about your decades-long relationship with Norifumi Ataka, who has taken on various roles—production designer, art assistant, art director—and with whom you’ve crafted some of the most beautiful, haunting environments in film. How much is the mise-en-scène and visual structure from a script, and how much their vision? Because you often use interior spaces, how much is it finding a home or warehouse or office that you decide on, and how much is constructing a set?
It’s not often that I get asked questions about Ataka. I’ve never really been asked these questions, so I’m not sure I can answer them properly. But what I can say is that, generally speaking, when we work together, we usually work with a location and don’t really work on a studio set. And I think it’s about figuring out how to turn the characteristics that are already present in a location into what works within a fiction realm—how to change and transform that. I think that’s where Ataka’s skills really shine. That’s also what I trust about him.
So when I write my scripts, I hardly write anything about art direction; there’s none really in there. Mainly it’s just dialogue that the actors say. After the script is written we go location-hunting; I go location-hunting with Ataka. We go around saying, “Oh, maybe this place. This place might be good.” It’s sort of an instinctual, gut feeling of “this location might work.” And once we’re there I say, “I think I might like to shoot a scene here. This is how I might want to shoot it.” And then Otaka would come back to me and say, “If that’s how you want to shoot it, we can change the window this way; we can construct the walls this way.” And we’ll go back and forth and have a conversation that way.
That all said, Ataka is quite a quiet person—he’s not big on words—so there’s not a lot of conversation necessarily. It’s quite a lot of feeling-based work that we do together. We kind of work quietly, and I sort of just wait to find out how Ataka will transform the place, and I always look forward to seeing what he does.
To your point about often shooting in inside spaces: maybe that is true, but I actually always desire to be shooting outside. But because I actually live in Tokyo and often end up shooting nearby, near Tokyo, and don’t have enough of the budget to go very far… Tokyo has a lot of difficulties in that there’s not that much beauty. There’s a lot of traffic. There’s a lot of bureaucracy you have to get through in order to shoot in Tokyo. So even though I really want to shoot in the wonderful streets and wonderful landscapes, I often find myself shooting inside, in smaller scales.
A restoration of your 1997 film Cure is now playing here in New York. Which is great, but a treatment you often don’t get; if I’ve seen most of your films, it’s mostly bad-looking copies grabbed off the Internet. Do you worry about your older work falling into obscurity, being difficult to find? And are there efforts to restore any others?
So I actually did not know that Cure is opening in theaters over there. I’m very happy to hear that. But for me, once I make a film… while I’m still making a film, while I’m still filming, it’s still in my own hands. But once it’s made, I understand that copies are made and screened in many theaters, in many places, in many mediums around the world. After it’s made I’m quite irresponsible towards my films—I sort of let them be and go about their own way.
So I have no interest in really following what my past films are doing, where the films might be opening or screening abroad; I’m really just not interested in that. I sort of feel really unrelated to the works that I’ve already made. I like to think that people will continue to enjoy my films, maybe be scared of my films. I hope that’s true after my death as well; I think people will just continue to enjoy them. But this kind of irresponsibility that I’m able to have towards my films, I think, is part of the joy of filmmaking as well.
Wife of a Spy incorporates Kenji Mizoguchi and Sadao Yamanaka, two of the great, enduring filmmakers from Japan. Being decades into a prolific career, do you not think about your impact and influence around the world?
I’ve never really given a serious thought about something like that. Obviously Yamanaka and Mizoguchi are two wonderful filmmakers, and truly they are Japanese filmmakers, as you say. But I don’t find any direct relationship between them and myself. You might know this, but the Japanese studio system collapsed in the 1970s, so I’m in a generation of filmmakers that came after the collapse—so directing and filmmaking has been very different from the time that they used to make movies. They are part of a Japanese national film history, but I feel very separate from that.
The reason I included films by Mizoguchi and Yamanaka is because Wife of a Spy is set in the 1940s, which means people would just have been engaging in their films ordinarily. I had no hesitation bringing those films into my film. But I really feel very separate from them; I don’t regard myself as relational to these geniuses who had made these films. I really feel that these geniuses were a miraculous product of a wonderful era of filmmaking.
To add to that, obviously those two filmmakers are geniuses. But more so I feel that there’s something about the power of the studio system. There’s so much staff, crew, actors, cinematographers—so many people in the studio system that allows for good filmmaking to happen, the craft of filmmaking to be at its highest peak. And I think it was a system that really allowed for that. Today it’s really hard to do that. No matter how hard the director might be working, it’s not possible to make it in the same way the studio system allowed. And maybe it’s true about the U.S. and elsewhere, but I think all over the world it was the ‘40s and ‘50s studio system at its highest peak, and I think it resulted in the highest peak of film history.
While there’s still time… I know you love Clint Eastwood’s The Mule.
It’s the one that he’s actually in, right? The Mule?
Yeah. His new film Cry Macho just came out here. Have you seen it?
No, no. Unfortunately we’re unable to see this in Japan, so I haven’t seen it yet. The trailer is out, but it’s just not possible to see it in Japan. But it’s definitely one of the films I look most forward to watching.
I think it’s opening the Tokyo Film Festival.
I’m of course a big fan of Clint Eastwood as a director, but even more so I’m a huge fan of him as an actor. I’ve been a fan of his as an actor for many decades. So it’s true about The Mule as well, but something about… even in his old age there are moments where he gives the same expression that he gives when he was in Dirty Harry. So I can’t wait to see that expression again. Just thinking about it makes me so joyous and excited.