Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a directorial polyglot, no doubt about it, but he’s more fluent in some cinematic languages than others. Having more or less co-founded the J-horror wave, and with “Pulse” and “Cure,” giving it an artistic and thematic depth it only rarely attained without him, he then spent the best part of the last two decades turning in dour sci-fi (“Foreboding,” “Before We Disappear“), turgid metaphysical melodramas (“Journey to the Shore,” “Daguerrotype“), and grimly forgettable serial killer movies (“Creepy“). The acclaimed drama “Tokyo Sonata” was the rare, successful outlier, but that was back in 2008.
But then a funny thing happened: in 2019 Kurosawa made “To the Ends of the Earth,” a delightful Japanese/Uzbek culture-clash dramedy seen by maybe six people in the world, but that would have constituted a definite return to form, if it were in a form that he’d ever worked in before. And now he follows it up with – what else – a twisty period espionage thriller. “Wife of a Spy” surprisingly, but not wholly undeservedly, won the Best Director prize in Venice 2020 and proves that just when you think you’re out, man, Kiyoshi Kurosawa will land a one-two that will pull you back in.
It doesn’t start off all that promisingly. “Wife of a Spy” (the title is a slight spoiler) is lavishly mounted in terms of costuming and period set design, but in the early stretches especially, the rather ugly digital photography is hard to ignore and feels a little anachronistic given that this is Japan in 1940. Kurosawa’s fondness for shooting characters walking past slatted windows blasting artificial light that bleeds across the screen makes the whole production feel a little cheaper than the sumptuous dressing deserves. And the opening act is a little stiff as we’re introduced to Yusaku (Takahashi Issey), a handsome and successful Kobe-based businessman, liberal and urbane though apparently motivated more by opportunism than humanitarianism as the storm clouds of war gather on the horizon. He has a pretty and seemingly subservient wife in Satako (Yu Aoi), whose main act of resistance to the rising tide of nationalist, militarist fervor is to continue to wear sharply tailored “western-style” clothing instead of the traditional Japanese outfits the ladies of her set are starting to favor. Her childhood friend Taiji (Masahiro Higashide), who is now a rigidly patriotic military policeman and who carries a torch for Satako, chides her about that while also subtly undermining her trust in her husband.
But their marriage seems a happy if not particularly egalitarian one, with Yusaku, in his spare time, also “directing” his wife and his nephew Fumio (Bandô Ryôto) in a black-and-white heist movie that he then puts on for the amusement of his colleagues. This film-within-the-film is not just an enjoyable bauble but rather cleverly introduces the film’s themes of deceit, untrustworthiness, and performance, while also functioning as a plot point down the line, after Satako’s complacent life is upended. Yusaku and Fumio return from a business trip to Manchuria with a mysterious young woman in tow, whom Satako first suspects of being Yusaku’s mistress. Then, when she is found dead, Satako worries that Yusaku is involved with her murder. How well does Satako really know her husband?
So far our sympathies have all lain with Yusaku, with Satako’s self-centered focus on her husband’s faithfulness when there are much bigger forces at work in the world seeming frivolous and not a little petty. But that internal eye-roll is exactly what Kurosawa and co-screenwriters Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Tadashi Nohara, best known for the fantastic, lengthy “Happy Hour,” are banking on, the better to sell the film’s real twist, which is not so much a plot revelation as a sudden shift in Satako’s psychology. At this point, anchored by Yu Aoi’s terrific turn, “Wife of a Spy” pivots from being a knotty, Hitchcockian, plot-driven spy caper to telling the story of a young woman’s political awakening, and the resultant growth of her self-respect as she realizes that she has resources of cunning, intelligence and integrity that she had not been aware of previously. Satoko becomes the witty, plucky heroine of a story she had merely decorated before; even Yusaku realizes how much he has underestimated his wife, giving some of their later interactions a delightful bantering, Nick-and-Nora vibe.
But although there are plenty of glossier pleasures to be had, “Wife of a Spy” does finally amount to more than just a diverting entertainment set in a theme-park idea of the past. In being about Satoko’s wising-up – beautifully played by Yu Aoki in a single revelatory close-up as she watches evidence of an atrocity whose gravity we understand from the dawning horror of her expression – it’s also about her loss of innocence. And so on a broader level, it functions as a kind of reckoning with Japan’s national loss of innocence at this time – a parallel made explicit in the film’s unexpectedly somber epilogue, set in 1945, which, after all the fun spy-jinks and double-crossing, has the audacity to land on an almost dreamlike evocation of the true, abject desolation of war. It’s debatable whether such a grave conclusion is wholly earned, but it’s certainly a fascinating twist, in a film beset with them, to have its final twist be into real, devastating history. [B]