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Wednesday, June 18, 2003

The unbearable weight of history

Spy Sorge

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Masahiro Shinoda
Running time: 182 minutes
Language: Japanese, English
Currently showing

When I interviewed Masahiro Shinoda 12 years ago, after the release of his award-winning "Shonen Jidai (Childhood Days)," I asked him about his next project. "I want to make a film about Richard Sorge, the famous spy who was active in Japan in the 1930s and 1940s," he said. "It's an idea I've had for the past 20 years. I think exploring the mind of a spy like Sorge is the best way to understand the political situation of Japan at that time and answer the question of why we went to war with America."

News photo
Masahiro Motoki and Iain Glen in Masahiro Shinoda's "Spye Sorge"

Here we are in 2003 and "Spy Sorge" is finally in the theaters. Made at a cost of 2 billion yen, the film is Shinoda's "Gangs of New York," a project that he meditated on for decades, spent the earth on and considers to be the capstone of his career.

And like "Gangs of New York" it is a work of audacity, ambition and mildly loopy obsession that probably played far better in its creator's head than it does on the screen. In other words, a folie de grandeur that Shinoda may have sold to his backers as a historical thriller but which unspools as a history lesson -- one taught by a scholar in love with his subject and mostly oblivious to his audience. It's not that the film is dull so much as distanced by Shinoda's lofty pedagogical and stylistic concerns, which are more for the sake of posterity than for us groundlings, intent on our own sordid amusement.

But Shinoda is nothing if not thorough, and for the historically curious, "Spy Sorge" offers a wealth of painstakingly researched information -- visual and otherwise -- about a bygone era. Everything from the costumes to the barrel-shaped doors of the Tokyo rathskeller that Sorge frequents have a look of impeccable authenticity, not the usual movie-land approximation. Also, cinematographer Tatsuo Suzuki and lighting director Hideshi Mikami bring the Japan of 60 years ago to life with a startling freshness and immediacy. Not the sepia atmospherics of old photographs and newsreels, but the eternity-in-the-present light of Vermeer.

Finally, the CG staff's re-creations of the era's cityscapes may not quite fool the eye -- I still felt as though I were watching hyperrealistic animation -- but are impressive nonetheless and, more importantly, fit well with the live footage.

News photo

The scale and beauty of Shinoda's cinematic time machine, in fact, overwhelms the onscreen action. There is no lack of high drama (Sorge and his ring unearthed intelligence that was immensely valuable to their Soviet masters, while running enormous risks), but there is a curious absence of tension. The framing is one problem: The film begins with the ring's arrest and tells their story as an extended -- and devitalizing -- flashback. Shinoda's attitude toward his material is another: Trying to strike an elegiac note, he portrays Sorge's career as a doomed-but-noble crusade that symbolizes the aspirations and delusions of an era. Instead of a dirty hero, Sorge becomes a character in a historical morality play, carrying more metaphoric weight than a mere human can bear.

The story begins in October 1941, with Japanese security forces closing in on Sorge's spy ring, which has just celebrated its greatest coup: relaying Japan's strategic war plans to Moscow. Japan, Stalin now knows, will not invade Siberia but will instead sweep south to secure its oil supplies. He can now concentrate all his forces on Hitler, without worrying about his eastern flank. When the ring's leader, Richard Sorge (Iain Glen), and his top confederate, Hozumi Ozaki (Masahiro Motoki), are arrested, they face their captors with defiance. Having brilliantly accomplished their mission, they can better endure the worst.

They first meet in Shanghai, in 1931, where Ozaki is a reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, hopelessly in love with Agnes Smedley, a leftist American writer. She introduces him to a "Mr. Johnson" -- Sorge's cover name. By this time the half-German, half-Russian Sorge has been a Soviet spy for nearly a decade, in Germany and the Far East. Ozaki begins feeding "Johnson" information about the Japanese military that he in turn relays to his Russian masters. A beautiful friendship has begun.

Fast-forward to 1933. Sorge arrives in Yokohama, again as a German journalist. He re-establishes contact with Ozaki through an artist named Miyazaki (Toshiya Nagasawa) and begins to build a spy network that includes a Croatian reporter and a German wireless operator. Sorge also joins the Nazi party and becomes close to the German ambassador, Eugen Ott, who begins to reveal sensitive information over friendly games of chess.

Meanwhile, Japan is undergoing social and political turmoil. Dire poverty forces rural farmers to the wall and drives their daughters into prostitution. Young army officers, outraged by a government they see as venal and corrupt, stage a coup on Feb. 26, 1936, that fails -- but rocks the establishment to its foundations. The militarists gain power -- and Japan begins a fatal march toward war.

Meanwhile, Sorge is busy with his love life, bedding not only the ambassador's zaftig wife, but Hanako Mitake (Riona Hazuki), a bar hostess whose combination of porcelain beauty and mysterious Asian delicacy he finds intoxicating.

Espionage remains his top priority, however. He continues to milk Ott, while Ozaki, using his expertise on China, becomes a government adviser -- and privy to top secrets.

This is fascinating stuff, but in the film's plodding retelling it becomes Great Scenes in the lives of Great Spies. Masatoshi Nagase's stiff performance as Ozaki doesn't help matters. Scottish actor Iain Glen ("Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," "Song of a Raggy Boy") gives us warming glimpses of Sorge's scapegrace side, as well as his conflicted soul, but he can't quite free himself from Shinoda's monumentalizing -- not to mention the flat English script.

Less a film than a carefully researched, beautifully constructed museum exhibit, "Spy Sorge" is nonetheless worth the three-hour tour, all in all. But, then, I always was a fan of dioramas.

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