Director – Kiyoshi Kurosawa – 2020 – Japan – 115m
A Japanese businessman’s wife decides to help her husband after discovering he is passing inflammatory state secrets to the Americans – out on MUBI in the UK and Ireland on Wednesday, September 8th
1940, Kobe, Japan. British silk trader John Fitzgerald Drummond is arrested by the Kenpetai then released thanks in part to his friend and business associate Yusaku Fukuhara (Issey Takahashi from Shin Godzilla, Hideaki Anno, 2014; Kill Bill Vols 1 & 2, Quentin Tarantino, 2003 & 4; Whisper Of The Heart, Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995), who defends him against Officer Taiji Tsumori (Masahiro Higashide from Foreboding, 2017; Before We Vanish, 2017; Creepy, 2016 – all Kiyoshi Kurosawa), a childhood friend of Yusaku’s wife Satoko (Yu Aoi from Killing, Shinya Tsukamoto, 2018; Journey To The Shore, Kurosawa, 2015 and much else). (Europeans are systematically being arrested, with the exception of Axis power nationals Germans and Italians.)
As Fukuhara and his nephew Fumio Takeshita (Ryota Bando) travel abroad to Manchuria, Satako invites Taiji to her house for a whisky, but once there he berates her for the drink being Western- not Japanese-made and suggests she should wear traditional Japanese clothes rather than Western dresses.
When her husband and his nephew’s Manchurian trip takes longer than originally planned, she frets only to be overjoyed on his eventual return. Shortly afterwards, at a company get-together, Fumio announces he’s leaving to write a novel before he’s drafted. When a woman is found drowned off a pier near his hotel, he becomes a murder suspect. Later, Satoko goes to Taiji with a document Fumio brought back from Manchuria implicating the Imperial Army in biological warfare tests on locals. The arrested Fumio is tortured but her husband is released.
Despite Yusaku’s protestations that he’s not a spy but simply wants to do the right thing and take the proof of Japanese crimes against humanity to the Americans to get them to enter the war, she is convinced that he’s a spy and wants to be the wife of a spy. This is motivated partly by a desire to be a good wife and stick by him and partly out of fear that he was having an affair with the murdered woman, a suggestion on which there is no evidence one way or the other. Her sticking by him is not at all motivated by anything remotely political. Inevitably, it all ends badly.
Like the couple in Creepy unaware of the next-door neighbour’s criminal activities or the lady news reporter in To The Ends Of The Earth (Kurosawa, 2019) who shoots what she pleases with a camera then gets into trouble with the police for filming in an unauthorised area, Satoko is another overly trusting Kurosawa heroine. Her husband must be trustworthy because he’s her husband – how could it be otherwise? At the point she agrees to let herself be separately put into a crate as a stowaway on a ship bound for the US, there seems little hope for her.
As a woman in peril she undergoes mental torment like a Hitchcock heroine. Yet rather than a Hitchcock-style thriller this is essentially a drama emphasising the heroine’s peril less than her self-deception in service to the institution of marriage as a vehicle for romantic love. We see nothing of her husband’s point of view, which it’s hard to believe would be anything like hers.
A keen amateur moviemaker, Yusaku makes a film in which his wife burgles a safe (much as she herself will later do in the narrative) only to be betrayed by a man who shoots her in the back before she dies in his arms. Elsewhere, documentation on the biological warfare test subjects comes not only in written report but also as home movie camera footage. Key scenes involve the watching of the film about the atrocity, which on at least one occasion is switched for the amateur drama prior to screening. This device of films within the film gives the wider movie space to explore the implications of everything that’s going through the head of the leading lady.
Aoi is terrific as the wife, pulling the audience into her delusion with every little act and conversation. Higashide who played the incredibly unsettling alien from Foreboding is extremely convincing as the police officer who claims to dislike the requirements of his job but has no hesitation in carrying them out when he has to. Takahashi is highly effective as the husband whose covert activities are unclear and who makes his wife believe consistently improbable tales as he covers his tracks.
Prior to its success at the 2020 Venice Film Festival, where it won the Silver Lion for Best Director, this was a Japanese television movie. Considerable effort has clearly gone in to both script and period production values. On the fringes of the narrative yet intrinsic to it, a highly effective, Kenpetai, male torture scene shows virtually nothing explicit, although it very clearly involves tooth- and toenail-pulling, with pulled teeth later presented to another male interrogation subject as a means to coercion. This torture incident lurks in the story’s background out of Sakoto’s sight, lending a poignancy to her delusion when she throws herself on what she mistakenly believes to be Taiji’s essentially kindly nature.
Just as he played around with aircraft at the end of Pulse (Kurosawa, 2001) and flying fireballs at the end of Before We Vanish, so too here Kurosawa throws in an unexpected ending (although this one makes sense when you see the film). Satoko stands in the ruin of a building amidst fireballs that have rained down from the sky. It’s a peculiar coda, yet it seems to fit.
The ongoing prejudice against enemy foreigners reflects a rising militarism, with Satoko slowly moving from embracing Western clothes and drink to berating her husband for not going along with the national interest. Torn between such sentiments and her attempts to please a husband who completely rejects nationalism, she is ultimately unable to cope. This film is unlike most spy movies you’ll ever see in that it’s less about spying than women, marriage, romance and self-deception in a very different time to the one in which we now live. As such, it makes for fascinating and thought-provoking viewing.
Wife Of A Spy is out on MUBI in the UK and Ireland on Wednesday, September 8th.