In Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s disturbing new film, The wife of a spy, publicly defined morality fights personal feelings in the midst of a brutal war, and no one is allowed to win.
We would expect that from Kurosawa – unrelated to the big old man who made Seven Samurai. The young Kurosawa made an international name for himself in the field of horror with psychological shocks as relevant as To cure, Serpent’s Path, Session and the box office sensation Impulse (2001), a warning about the spiritual dangers lurking on the Internet. In the next phase of his career, Kurosawa traded vengeful spirits for the weird unpredictability of everyday life. the years 2008 Tokyo Sonata, one of the filmmaker’s best, tells the disturbing story of a bourgeois urban family whose well-being is unraveling to the rhythm of a metronome. Since leaving the youth market behind, Kurosawa has at times struggled to convey his vision of the complex dilemmas of modern adult life.
The wife of a spy, Kurosawa’s first period piece, is a welcome comeback. The setting is Kobe, just before Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor ignites American involvement in WWII. By 1940, Japan had already been at war with the rest of Asia for several years, and the import company owned by Fukuhara Yusaku – played by Issey Takahashi – was doing business in the conquered territory of Manchuria. For Yusaku’s beautiful wife, Satoko (Yû Aoi), her successful husband’s business trips to Manchuria are more of a source of worry than joy, especially when amateur filmmaker Yusaku makes it a point of honor to take his nephew Fumio (Ryôta Bandô) and their shooting equipment on the last trip. Manchuria is a war zone and security is tight.
Yusaku and Fumio aren’t the only men in Satoko’s life. Taiji (Masahiro Higashide), his admirer from school days, is now an ambitious officer of Kenpeitai, the formidable military police. Their cruel and xenophobic efforts to protect themselves from “suspicious people” have raised suspicion of Yusaku and his sophisticated friends – for his liberal-minded amateur cinema and his fondness for “foreign” clothes and whiskey, as well as for his activities in Manchuria. . When Yusaku and Fumio return to Japan with a mysterious woman named Hiroko – the actor named Hyunri – the Kenpeitai becomes more intensely interested.
Yusaku has a secret. He witnessed the burning of the bodies of ‘plague’ victims in Manchuria and documented what he believed to be bacteriological war crimes against Chinese prisoners of war by the Imperial Japanese Army there, in the purpose of presenting the evidence to the US government. Satoko is unaware of any of this at first, but a cloud of doubt hangs over her and Yusaku’s house regardless. She suspects him of being a womanizer with “anti-Japanese” tendencies; For his part, Yusaku suspects that his wife and Taiji are falling in love. The penalty for treason is death, and like its Axis partner the German Gestapo, the Kenpeitai relies on torture in its investigations. Other complications arise.
Advertising for The wife of a spy claims Kurosawa’s conjugal / multi-level war story melodrama – written by the director with Hamaguchi Ryûsuke and Nohara Tadashi – has an Alfred Hitchcock whiff on it, perhaps with the sneaky and suspenseful romance of Popular in mind. For us, Satoko and Yusaku’s strained relationship owes just as much to the labyrinthine plots and paranoia of director Fritz Lang. The secrets, the suspicion, the all-powerful totalitarian apparatus. There is much more at stake than marital infidelity, but for Satoko and Yusaku, the war begins at home.
Actor Aoi, the reigning screen goddess in Japan, is unforgettable in his portrayal of a woman so devoted to her principled but uncommunicative husband that she is ready to follow him anywhere and do no ‘no matter what, because she implicitly trusts him. Their melancholy love story carries many of the same regrettable ironies as Kurosawa’s previous efforts, with the added realization that events as terrible as these actually happened. The truth hurts.