Wife Of A Spy (Supai no tsuma)
Japan (2020) Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
During World War II, the British government distributed a propaganda poster which read “Careless talk costs lives”. This was designed to stop people from inadvertently leaking vital information to any German spies that may be lurking in the vicinity. They may have had a point but keeping schtum could also cause problems.
Japan, 1940 and British silk maker Drummond is arrested by police on suspicion of being a spy. He is bailed out by importer Yusaku Fukuhara (Issey Takahashi) but decides to leave Japan for Manchuria. Military officer Taiji Tsumori (Masahiro Higashide), an old friend of Yusaku’s wife Satoko (Yu Aoi), warns Yusaku the military will be watching him because of his ties with Drummond.
Shortly after, Yusaku and his nephew Fumio (Ryota Bando) take a trip to Manchuria which is mysteriously extended by two weeks. When they return, Satoko notices Yusaku is being cagey, as is alarmed when Taiji tells her a women Yusaku brought into Japan Hiroko Kusakabe (Hyunri) was later murdered. Satoko confronts her husband thinking he is having an affair but the truth is far more grim and problematic for them both.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa presents his first ever period drama with Wife Of A Spy, a misleading title for many reasons. For the Japanese, making films about the war in a way which garners sympathy is not easy. The litany of abominable war crimes rivals that of the Nazis which subsequent generations have sought to sweep under the carpet, leaving only a few bold enough to hold their hands up to these atrocities.
I doubt if Kurosawa is that bold, but he doesn’t sugar coat the dark side of his country’s actions in this film. The twist here is how he plays it a bit safe by showing this under the guise of betraying national security, appealing to the apologists and the deniers in one foul swoop. This becomes more apparent later on, built around a sinuous story of low scale espionage and rampant distrust.
The central mystery revolves around whether Yusaku is a spy for the Allies. He runs a successful import-export business and has been influenced by the west, wearing their fashions, learning the language, drinking their booze, etc. this makes him a prime suspect. Fumio is also in the picture as an employee of Yusaku, whilst Satoko is at first dismissed as the innocent trophy wife with aspirations of being an actress, although Taiji seems to be using his long time friendship with Satoko to his own advantage.
Our first sighting of Satoko is her making a short film with Fumio as directed by Yusaku in the vault of his office, which later has interesting ramifications. With Yusaku and Fumio suspects in Hiroko’s death, Satoko visits Fumio, only to find the resort he is staying at guarded by police. Fumio gives Satoko and envelope for Yusaku, which she hands over to her husband and finally gets answers – Yusaku is not a spy but has some shocking information that needs to be exposed out of global interest.
Believing her husband and offering her support, Satoko takes her dutiful wife role a little too seriously and gets involved behind his back, potentially jeopardising the plans to get this information out – to America of all places! Yusaku is still not a spy though, but if he was, then Satoko was going to be the wife of a spy! So, now it is time to put plan B into action, but Taiji is one step ahead, thanks to anonymous tip offs in advance.
Can’t trust anyone can you? But that is the whole point of the story, After a rather dull and meandering slow start, the pace and the story pick up once Satoko learns the truth about the trip to Manchuria. With this comes the flowering of Satoko from frail rose bud to adventurous Snapdragon, yet be under no illusion, Yusaku is still the one pulling the strings.
However, the intrigue is surprisingly subtly and underplayed, which is usually a forte of Kurosawa’s but in this instance it results in a noticeable lack of stimulating drama usually beholden to spy related yarns. This where the title is misleading for anyone expecting something with a bit more kick to it, yet we should be mindful that Kurosawa isn’t known as an action guy, preferring to get under our skin and into our heads instead.
Earlier I mentioned Kurosawa’s depiction of the Japanese army’s brutality. When Fumio is “interrogated” by Taiji to implicate Yusaku as a spy, the method of choice is to pull out his finger nails. The once upstanding Taiji even strikes Satoko in rage for being a traitor, exposing how easily the indoctrinated can betray their own conscience in the name of so-called national loyalty.
Using the war as a backdrop to impart this idea might ruffle a few feathers but if it does, it should be to challenge revisionist history. Kurosawa had the largest platform possible to do this as this film originally aired on TV in Japan, before a re-graded international theatrical release. Visually, it boasts epic camera work and Kurosawa’s intuitive framing, whilst the period replication is typically impressive, despite the looming presence of the TV movie spectre.
Leading the strong cast is Yu Aoi, firing on all cylinders as Satoko. Just as she does in Miyamoto, Aoi teases us with another essay of a fragile damsel then breaks free from this leash to turns out a layered, complex, and compelling performance. Issey Takahashi is perhaps too laid back as Yusaku, but this makes him more enigmatic and ambiguous as the suspected spy.
Admittedly, I had very high hopes for Wife Of A Spy and whilst a very good film, the slow start and lack of urgency prevents it from being as impactful as it could have been. The socio-political commentary and symbolic themes are piercing enough, maybe being a TV production encumbered Kurosawa from pushing it to the much needed next level.