Wife of a Spy (Supai no tsuma)

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenplay: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Tadashi Nohara
Stars: Yû Aoi (Satoko Fukuhara), Issey Takahashi (Yusaku Fukuhara), Masahiro Higashide (Yasuharu Tsumori), Ryôta Bandô (Fumio Takeshita), Yuri Tsunematsu (Komako), Minosuke (Kanemura), Hyunri (Hiroko Kusakabe), Takashi Sasano (Doctor Nozaki)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2021
Country: Japan
Wife of a Spy
Wife of a Spy

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s precisely tuned and beautifully shot historical thriller Wife of a Spy (Supai no tsuma) is set in Kobe, Japan, in the lead-up to World War II. Yû Aoi stars as Satoko Fukuhara, the titular spouse who slowly begins to suspect that her husband, Yusaku (Issey Takahashi), a successful businessman with numerous ties to the West, is engaging in anti-Japanese espionage. Yusaku is also suspected by Yasuharu Tsumori (Masahiro Higashide), a friend of Satoko’s from childhood who has traded a previously gentle nature for a prominent position in the Japanese military, which makes him the most prominent of the film’s numerous examples of how Japan lost its way in its militaristic quest for dominance.

The screenplay, which was written by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Tadashi Nohara, and Kurosawa, is structured around Satoko’s political awakening, as she transforms from being a trophy wife in a palatial Western-style villa, to a daring agent who is willing to hide inside a cargo crate for a two-week journey across the ocean if it means revealing the truth about her country’s sins against humanity. At the beginning of the film, Satoko is genial and girlish, unwilling to fully confront her husband even when she suspects him of adultery. She clearly relishes the material benefits of Yusaku’s financial success, all of which is couched in Western materialism that stands out against their country’s increasingly inward, nativist stance (Western style clothes, whiskey, and the like are all seen as borderline treasonous). For his part, Yusaku remains enigmatic for much of the film, as are aligned with Satoko and therefore do not know what he is up to. Issey Takahashi gives a cool, calculated performance that always assures us that more is going on than behind his eyes than we might suspect, which makes him seem at times potentially nefarious.

Wife of a Spy, which was originally shot for Japanese television before playing the festival circuit, where it picked up the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival, is at its best when it is subtly and not-so-subtly critiquing the ravages of nationalism run amok at the expense of humanity. Japan’s many atrocities committed before and during World War II are numerous and well documented, which is perhaps why Kurosawa does not go into great detail elaborating on even those atrocities directly connected to the plot, but it is not hard to see the film as an indictment of any civilized nation whose leaders allow their own sense of destiny and empire to cloud their reason and moral obligation to their fellow human beings—to become, in a word, monsters.

Kurosawa, who has worked in numerous genres over the past several decades, although he is most often associated with the horror film, finds numerous means to dramatize this tension both visually and narratively. One of the most memorable moments finds Yusaku standing with his back against a light pole while a procession of Japanese soldiers marches down the city street in neat order while everyone else either watches or cheers them on. His literally putting his back to them creates a striking image of quiet rebellion that speaks powerfully to the entirety of his commitment to the cause, one that is viewed by Yasuharu and other rabid nationalists as treason of the worst sort, but we can all too readily recognize as simple human decency.

Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3.5)

James Kendrick

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