Review: Wife of a Spy (Japan 2020)

Watching Kiyoshi Kurosawa experiment with new genres over this past decade or so has been fascinating. The man knows how to make an incredibly spooky supernatural chiller – his Kairo/Pulse is probably the pinnacle of J-horror for me – but in his later years he can often feel like he’s going through the motions with horror (as in his lackluster Daguerrotype). Whereas with his more out-of-the-box work, like Journey to the Shore, and Tokyo Sonata, or even Before We Vanish, you can sense the excitement of trying something new.

With Wife of a Spy, Kurosawa enters all new territory, the wartime drama/thriller – perhaps closer to Hitchcock than Kurosawa has ever come before. Except where Hitchcock is usually visceral, Kurosawa remains removed and intellectual, even as he engages with more humanist concerns.

It’s an odd project, a Nikkatsu-produced television movie (shot on 8K digital, and converted/reedited for the big screen) that focuses tightly on a married couple living in Kobe in 1940 in a nation on the cusp of war, a war already well underway in China. Industrialist Yusaku Fukuhara (a cool, confident Issey Takahashi) is a self-proclaimed cosmopolitan, opposed to the war crimes and increased militarization of Imperial Japan. Whereas his wife Satoko (Yu Aoi) is more easygoing, more concerned with the personal than the political. When the two get caught up in a plot involving evidence of Japanese war crimes, the biggest confrontations are between them, not the outside world, despite the constant circling of old friend turned military policeman Taiji.

The film is definitely a slow burn. The primary drama lies in the dynamics of the marriage – Takahashi’s Yusaku is an enigmatic figure, whereas the always excellent Yu Aoi constantly wears her emotions on her sleeve. And while the period detail is accurate, I wouldn’t call it sumptuous, this is not Lust, Caution – if anything, it errs on the side of the realistic and drab (perhaps a function of the television budget, perhaps a choice), though the costuming is excellent. And it takes time for the real crux of the plot to sink again, I did not feel fully engaged until the endgame.

Indeed, there are really only a couple of points where the film, for better or for worse, aesthetically feels like what I would call a “Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie.” The Fukuharas fancy themselves filmmakers, and the segments where they and their associates or others gather to watch films capture the oddity of a communal viewing – the in-film films themselves have a slightly surreal quality, especially the choppily edited and faded footage of war crimes.

Oddly, this may be the closest Kiyoshi Kurosawa has come to that other famous Kurosawa, Akira, resembling in some respects his deeply emotional post-war films like No Regrets for Our Youth but mingled with his noir stylings of the ‘40s and ‘50s.  Kiyoshi Kurosawa remains a fascinating chameleon – I’ll always await what he brings next.

Wife of a Spy opens tomorrow, September 17, at the IFC Center in New York before expanding to select theaters and virtual cinemas nationwide, from Kino Lorber.

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