If you’ve seen your fair share of WWII movies, it’s no real mystery the challenges that lie ahead for our main characters going into Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s new period drama, Wife Of A Spy. The 1940s were a trip as world governments collided, and dehumanizing atrocities were taking shape at the hands of countries like Germany, and of course, Japan. Kurosawa nimbly crafts his story around these events, inviting viewers into a character study, specifically of one woman who, despite all her daily exuberance at life and subservience to her husband, gets thrust into confronting her own identity when she learns a horrific truth for herself, and her husband’s flummoxing role in it all.
Our story begins in 1940, just as a British businessman gets accosted and taken by Japanese authorities from a raw silk firm in Kobe, where Yusaku Fukuhara (Issey Takahashi) manages a trading post. His pastimes occasionally include filmmaking with wife, Satoko (Yu Aoi) often gracing her presence on the screen, as well as doing business overseas in other neighboring countries where some semblance of freedom still reigns much more than in Japan at present. One such trip sees Yusaku off to Manchuria with nephew-in-law, Fumio (Ryota Bando), with Satoko awaiting a month before his return.
Little does she know that his arrival will bring about a dark cloud of conspiracy imbued by the paranoiac practices of the Japanese government right then, when the body of a dead Manchurian woman washes ashore. It’s when newly promoted lieutenant Yasuharu (Masahiro Hiagshide), a former childhood friend to Satoko, makes his intentions clear – ultimately forcing Satoko to get to the heart of Yusaku’s ambiguous actions, and judge for herself what matters most.
What ensues is an intriguing tale serving as a testament of loyalty amid wartime and often morbid uncertainty. Watching Satoko’s childlike innocence evolve in a matter of minutes and momentd proves to be a subdued, albeit remarkable look at a person’s introspection over time. You never really suspect her as someone who is able to make life or death choices, but that eventually changes. We don’t really know or see how, but it’s handed to us somewhat casually in the step-by-step process in getting ourselves acquainted, between her interactions with both Yusaku and Yasuharu, setting up the long term of things.
By the end, Kurosawa’s Wife Of A Spy is about more than righting the wrongs of history, and this is where Aoi’s performance comes in, carrying the weight of each transition from the moment she decides to be the placeholder she feels she needs to be. It never fails that the hard part for Satoko is being separated from her husband at any given moment, and it’s at these times when she surprises herself, and even the audience. At one point her own paranoia about Yusaku starts manifesting thoughts in her mind, but it’s not too long before she regains her clarity. She even fixates for a time or too about where she stands, much to the chagrin of Yusaku’s own modesty and perceptions.
Satoko’s is a wonderous toil at self-discovery, where her own humanity is remains unforgotten no matter what the price, or how much the pain. Less so is her complexity than the simple nature of her personality, and her ability to see things the way they are no matter how hard, ugly or even damning, and that’s at the heart of Wife Of A Spy, telling an immersive, character-driven wartime tale about love, sacrifice and true resolve.
Wife Of A Spy is screening for the 2021 hybrid installment of Japan Cuts which runs from August 20 through September 2.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.