‘Wife of a Spy’ Is a Beautiful, Mysterious Historical Drama

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's spy film is yet another highlight in the director's varied, decorated career.

by Ingrid Dendievel
Wife of a Spy

Wife of a Spy won the Silver Bear for Best Director at last year’s Venice Film Festival. I had heard of director and co-writer Kiyoshi Kurosawa (not related to the late great master of Japanese cinema) before, but for very different works. Kurosawa likes to deal in different genres; earlier in his career, he was known as a director of horror movies (which is how I got to know him) but in the last decade or so, he has switched to many complex dramas. He’s very flexible and certainly does not like to be stuck in one mode of storytelling. There is not a lot of gimmickry in his work; his strengths lie in his well-crafted, complex screenplays.

Wife of a Spy starts with the introduction of the three protagonists. Famous actress Satoko Fukuhara (played by Yû Aoi) is married to a successful businessman Yusaku Fukuhara (Issey Takahashi) and is often visited by her childhood friend and police officer Yasuharu Tsumori (Masahiro Higashide), who still has a crush on her. It’s 1940 and World War II is looming in Japan. Nationalism has the country in its grip, with authorities asking foreigners to leave immediately.

It’s in these circumstances that Yusaku leaves for Manchuria on a business trip. There he witnesses an act of barbarism, which changes him so much that his wife hardly recognizes him upon his return home. The fact that he is accompanied by an unknown woman only adds to the confusion. What exactly is he hiding? Yusaku seems to be oblivious to his wife’s feelings and decides to pass on details of what he has witnessed to the international community, most notably America. This puts Satoko in a very difficult position; will she stay loyal to her country or her husband?

She eventually chooses to follow in her husband’s footsteps, but fate tends to be cruel. The cast may still be young, but they do a more than adequate job, especially Aoi in the role of Satoko, who shines throughout.

The movie bathes in a brooding atmosphere; you constantly have the feeling that something sinister is about to happen, and usually, it does. Much of the violence takes place offscreen, but you never lose track of the terror that constantly surrounds the characters. There are plenty of similarities to some of Hitchcock’s war-time films.

Wife of a Spy also gives an idea of what Japanese society looked like in the second World War, with nationalism seeping into almost every aspect of everyday life. The Fukuharas are different, though, with their Western lifestyle (and their Western whiskey). What is oddly missing in this movie is the depiction of love and passion. Not even one kiss is shared between the protagonists. The film is very austere in that way.

But the star of the movie is its screenplay, meticulously crafted by Kurosawa and his co-writers, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and Tadashi Nohara. It takes some time before events get going, but as soon as husband and wife become involved in spying, doom quickly catches up with them. Wife of a Spy has one of the saddest endings you’ll see this year. I actually felt heartbroken. In this world, heroism comes at a very high and painful price.


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1 comment

Nick Kush September 29, 2021 - 10:25 am

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