Set in 1940 in Kobe, Japan, with an epilogue during the bombing of the city in 1945, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s intriguingly titled Wife of a Spy (Spy no Tsuma) bookends the Second World War in an absorbing, exotic, well-paced thriller with moments of disconcerting realism and horror. Its spot in Venice competition is a well-earned promotion for the director after his many accolades for films like Kairo, Tokyo Sonata and Before We Vanish.
As Kurosawa’s first historical picture, Wife of a Spy will win no awards for imaginative period creation — in fact the sets, costumes and lighting sport the distanced look of an old movie into which new characters have been inserted. But perhaps this is deliberate, because Kurosawa and his co-screenwriters Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Tadashi Nohara cleverly incorporate movie-making into the plot, confusing the viewer about what is reality and what is fiction.
Successful silk merchant Yusaku Fukuhara (Issey Takahashi, Kill Bill, Shin Godzilla) is a suave, cosmopolitan liberal married to pretty Satoko (Yu Aoi, Birds Without Names). His disgust at the aggressive war-mongering of the period makes him instantly likable. Her apolitical coquettishness leaves a question mark. Their playful intimacy is established in a scene in black and white in which Satoko steals money from a safe. It turns out to be a scene in an amateur film in the Fantomas vein that Yusaku is directing for his amusement and that of his sophisticated, Westernized friends.
Yusaku keeps abreast of political developments and realizes the times are changing in Japan. There are uniformed squadrons of soldiers putting on pubic displays of bravado on the streets, and wearing Western clothing and drinking whisky are now frowned upon as un-Japanese. But Yusaku refuses to be intimidated by the city’s new head of military police, Taiji (Masahiro Higashide), whom he knows socially as Sakoto’s schoolmate. When a British friend and client is arrested as a spy, the merchant courageously puts up bail to have him released, though Taiji warns him it’s dangerous and the police are keeping an eye on him.
Early on, doubts are sowed about the loving couple. Sakoto invites Taiji over one afternoon when she’s alone; to what end is not clear. Yusaku takes off suddenly for a month in Manchuria with his nephew Fumio (Ryota Bando). Something very upsetting happens during their trip, and when they return they bring with them a mysterious woman and a notebook full of information about the atrocities committed by a radical faction of the Imperial Japanese Army. They also have a film proving what they say is true, and Yusaku is determined to turn it over to the Americans.
But such is the ambiguity of the acting that when Sakoto forces him to come clean and tell her what’s going on, even his impassioned speech in defense of America and liberty leaves one wondering if he’s told her the whole truth.
Then, when the woman he brought back from Manchuria is found dead in the sea and Fumio is arrested for her murder, Sakoto makes up her mind to defend her marriage and keep her husband out of prison. It’s almost as though she’s still acting in a spy movie as she stealthily opens her husband’s safe, the combination of which she knows by heart. But who is she really bent on betraying? All bets are off until a shockingly clever twist ends the suspense, augmented in any case by Ryosuke Nagaoka’s score.
But this is not the end of the film. Changing register from melodrama to tragedy, Kurosawa leaps ahead to the end of the war and the bombing of Kobe (also seen in Studio Ghibli’s famous animated feature Grave of the Fireflies). The final scene on a deserted beach is a bold finale that casts a cloud of doubt over love and trust and ideology.
Production companies: NHK, NHK Enterprises, Incline C&I Entertainment
Cast: Yu Aoi, Issey Takahashi, Ryota Bando, Yuri Tsunematsu, Minosuke Hyunri
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenwriters: Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Tadashi Nohara, Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Producers: Keisuke Tsuchihashi, Takashi Sawada, Satoshi Takada, Tamon Kondo
Director of photography: Tatsunosuke Sasaki
Editor: Hidemi Lee
Production designer: Norifumi Ataka
Costume designer: Haruki Koketsu
Music: Ryosuke Nagaoka
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: Nikkatsu Corp.