In 1940s Japan, a trophy wife becomes a spy
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s new historical drama The wife of a spy is a slow-burning Machiavellian film that is particularly attached to appearances. From his immaculate photography to his constant investigation of his character’s fashion choices and cultural tastes, he investigates the multiple meanings of the act of looking. When protagonist Satoko Fukuhara (Yu Aoi) first appears, it is as “Yuriko”, a mysterious character in a movie that her husband Yusaku (Issey Takahashi) is filming. However, the man is not a professional director, and this penchant for cinema quickly turns out to be only a hobby. Import / export businessman in the 40s in Kobe, Yusaku surrounds himself with collaborators and foreign friends, which brings the local police, led by Satoko’s childhood friend, Taiji (Masahiro Higashide), to question his true allegiance. After returning from an eventful trip to occupied Manchuria, where Yusaku witnesses atrocities committed by the Japanese military, Satoko begins to see his country in a different light.
To meet the demands of the public broadcaster NHK, which produced the film, Kurosawa shot The wife of a spy on an 8K digital camera. Such high definition technology gives a crisp and sometimes stiff look, which is curious for a period film so devoted to traditional celluloid. This manifests itself in everything from comments on Mizoguchi’s latest iteration to Yusaku’s filming in Manchuria, which he plans to use in a talk about heinous war crimes there. Tributes to the Age of Silence abound – not only through the work of Yusaku and Satoko, but also in the eerie images of Manchuria, which are reminiscent of A page of madness, 1926 Teinosuke Kinugasa’s pioneering masterpiece on a mental asylum.
In the first half of the film, Satoko is just a pawn in the game between Yusaku and Taiji, but the back half makes it clear that she is the true center of the story. As Yusaku’s film in the film foreshadows, she ultimately decides to steal her evidence from the Manchu experiences and use it to expose her betrayal and break free from the cocoon he enveloped her in. However, as with most caper stories, there is more to her scheme. Aoi’s intelligent performance gives Satoko an increasing dimensionality through this metamorphosis, as instead of leaving him, they come closer together through espionage. “I’m happy,” she says when Yusaku begins to treat her like her equal, “I finally feel like I’m living with you.” No longer naive or fragile, she transforms into a shrewd actress in her own right, perhaps the only one truly capable of understanding Japan’s politics and its ruinous future.
The wife of a spy opens in select theaters on September 17th.
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