Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s win of the best director award at this year’s Venice International Film Festival was covered by not only all the major dailies, but also by sports newspapers and tabloid weeklies that normally pay attention to Japanese films only when a scandal is involved.
That’s not to say Kurosawa’s film at Venice, the World War II drama, “Wife of a Spy,” is free of controversy. Star Masahiro Higashide, who plays a relentless military policeman, was tabloid fodder for months over an affair that led to his divorce in August from actress Anne Watanabe. One commenter on Twitter, @trendysocial, wondered if NHK, which backed “Wife of a Spy” and broadcast it prior to its Venice premiere, was “saying it’s all right to be unfaithful” by airing the film.
More central to the film itself, the story touches on Unit 731, a notorious medical research unit based in Harbin, China, that conducted experiments on war prisoners, killing many in the process. “I suppose this means the film is going to be called ‘anti-Japanese’,” Twitter user @taninakasan commented.
Speaking to “The Hollywood Reporter,” Kurosawa defended the film’s depictions of Japanese war crimes.
“If (they) 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,” he said.
The local reaction following the Venice awards ceremony on Sept. 12 was overwhelmingly celebratory, however. Many reports noted that Kurosawa was only the second Japanese director to win the Silver Lion for best direction, the other being Takeshi Kitano in 2003 for the period swashbuckler “Zatoichi.”
Others mentioned overseas praise for the film, Kurosawa and leads Yu Aoi and Issey Takahashi, playing an elite couple who become suspected of spying by Higashide’s military policeman. Reviews on aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes currently sit at 100 percent. Meanwhile, Venice jury president Cate Blanchett told a press conference that the decision to award the Silver Lion to Kurosawa was “undeniable in that final assessment.”
In a Sept. 16 article on the ZakZak news site, journalist Akiko Kobari writes that Kurosawa has many fans among not only “Japanese movie otaku (nerds), but also foreign actors and directors.” She concludes that “his accomplishments have truly made him the ‘world’s Kurosawa.’”
He is not yet a box-office powerhouse in Japan, though. After Kitano’s win of the Silver Lion, “Zatoichi” made a massive ¥2.85 billion following its September 2003 release. “Wife of a Spy” is not likely to match that total. It is currently scheduled to open in 77 theaters on Oct. 16, which Kurosawa describes as a “mid-size release.”
“It’s not just for the major chains and it’s not just for the mini-shiatā (independent theaters) — it’s somewhere in between,” he tells The Japan Times.
Even so, Kurosawa’s win of a major prize at one of the world’s Big Three festivals (the others are Cannes and Berlin) is career-changing, as Kurosawa himself acknowledges in an NHK online interview.
“By winning this prize I believe I can expand my range of possibilities and make various types of films,” he says. “While cherishing the career I’ve had up till now, I can accept new challenges and do things I’ve never done before.”