The year is 1940, and Japan is at war. Not with the Allies, not yet, but in Manchuria and soon in French Indochina. Back in Kobe, a bustling metropolis south of Tokyo, life is pleasant for the Fukuharas. Yusaku (Issey Takahashi) is an amateur filmmaker with wife Satoko (Yû Aoi) as his star. But things are not well. A business trip to Manchuria opens Yusaku’s eyes to the evil behind the invasion, while Satoko begins to suspect her husband of other indiscretions. Your husband returned from Manchuria with another woman, an old friend now a military policeman, tells Satoko. Is it an affair? Is it more?
There’s an interesting moment in Wife of a Spy where Satoko and Yusaku debate the legitimacy of the war in terms of comfort. The Imperial Japanese Army is using tactics beyond the pale, and for Yusaku, this must be exposed. For Satoko, the ends justify the means. War is hell no matter how you slice it, and the comforts she and her husband enjoy are what Japan is fighting for. But, as Wife of a Spy shows, there are limits to that argument.
Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Wife of a Spy is about the awakening of Satoko’s consciousness. She refers to herself as the “wife of a spy” multiple times: First, derisively, then as a badge of honor. It takes her some time to get there; a parallel Kurosawa seems to draw between her and the Japanese public. Yusaku is quicker on the uptake. He’s a filmmaker, and seeing is believing. One sight of the atrocities is enough to turn Yusaku into a mercenary with a camera looking to defect. He will bring this footage to the world: Because it’s harder to dismiss images than rumors and accounts.
But Kurosawa falls into a similar trap. Though Wife of a Spy contains the film Yusaku shot, most of the narrative takes place in dialogue. Characters talk more than the act, and when they do, Kurosawa presents their actions so matter-of-factly they lack suspense. In the movie’s climax, a stowaway is caught and captured. This should be a scene of tension, of selling out, and of uncertain fate. Instead, it feels like a rehearsal. Even the room the stowaway hides in is bare. The officials enter and demand to know where so and so is. There’s only one crate in the hull. Why not start there?
Kurosawa and Tatsunosuke Sasaki shot Wife of a Spy in 8K video—which provides a stunning level of clarity but a false appearance. With its soft lighting and lack of shadows, Wife of a Spy looks more like a dress-up soap opera than it does a historical period drama. A pity. The components are there, but the execution is not.
The Wife of a Spy (2020)
Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Written by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Tadashi Nohara
Produced by Hideyuki Okamoto
Starring: Yû Aoi, Issey Takahash, Masahiro Higashide, Ryôta Bandô
Kino Lorber, Not rated, Running time 155 minutes, Opens in select theaters on Oct. 1, 2021.