JAPAN CUTS 2021: ‘Wife of a Spy’ Is an Intriguing Drama Set in WWII

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Wife of a Spy - But Why Tho

Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s career has had ups and downs, but always variety: ghost dramas, psychological thrillers, alien invasion, and even French fantasy, so his new project Wife of a Spy is definitely an attention-grabber: a historical spy drama with old school overtones.

The film is set in 1940. World War II rages and Japan has just joined the Axis. Yusaku Fukuhara (Issey Takahashi) has a great life. He is a successful merchant, lives in a mansion, has a good relationship with his wife Satoko (Aoi Yû), and even has the luxury of making movies as a hobby. And if something goes wrong, his childhood friend and police officer Taiji (Masahiro Higashide) can help him get out of trouble. However, the pressures of war begin to transform the lives of this couple.

When Yusaku returns from a trip to Manchuria with his nephew Fumio (Ryôto Bandô), Satoko immediately realizes that something has changed. Her husband is more alert and clearly keeping secrets. Things get worse when a young woman associated with Yusaku turns up dead. Espionage? Betrayal of Japan? Infidelity? Satoko suspects the worst and starts investigating.

The story proposes a meditation on the role of justice in an authoritarian environment. Is it worth sacrificing peace of mind to seek justice? This question pushes and shapes Satoko’s arc, who goes from calmness to living under constant doubt. If her husband is a spy, what should she do? The pressures of fascism around her as well as Taiji’s possible love interest in her only create more uncertainties and eventually, a twist that ends up being the emotional peak of the film.

But as Satoko tries to decide which man to trust, Yusaku seems willing to sacrifice everything no matter what happens to his beloved, leading to a rift in their relationship. The crisis wanders between the fight for justice and the need to understand the impetus to obtain it. Kurosawa never goes for the melodramatic route thanks to a sharp script and the help of strong performances from Issey Takahashi and Aoi Yû.

Kurosawa presents an atmosphere of intrigue and uncertainty; at times a gloomy feeling takes hold of the story as if the fate of the protagonists was sealed. The military presence, the hostile attitude of Taiji, and the repudiation of all Western elements make clear what is at stake: the danger is palpable.

The film conjures up old-school spy stories with relative success, but by settling into conventionality, the film loses gas. Also, the impetuous actions of some characters become additional distractions. When Kurosawa finally gives full prominence to Satoko, the story gets back on track and uses the romantic arc to create a light and effective emotional connection used to potentiate the impact of the final twist.

Wife of a Spy culminates with a look at a devastated world, both inside and outside the head of its protagonist. The psychological horror was always present, only Kurosawa took his time to develop it and expose it in a tragic way.

“Wife of a Spy” won the Silver Lion in the 2020 Venice Film Festival and is part of Japan Cuts 2021, where it will have an In-Person screening on Friday, August 27, 7 PM.

Wife of a Spy
  • 7/10
    Rating - 7/10
7/10

TL;DR

Wife of a Spy culminates with a look at a devastated world, both inside and outside the head of its protagonist. The psychological horror was always present, only Kurosawa took his time to develop it and expose it in a tragic way.