In Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s disturbing new film, Wife of a Spy, publicly defined morality does battle with personal feelings in the midst of a brutal war, and no one is allowed to win.
We’d expect that much from Kurosawa—no relation to the grand old man who made Seven Samurai. The younger Kurosawa made his international name in the horror field with such pertinent psychological shockers as Cure, Serpent’s Path, Séance and the box-office sensation Pulse (2001), a warning of the spiritual dangers lurking in the internet. In the next phase of his career Kurosawa traded vengeful spirits for the eerie unpredictability of everyday life. 2008’s Tokyo Sonata, one of the filmmaker’s finest, tells the perplexing story of a middle-class urban family whose well-being unravels with the rhythm of a metronome. Ever since leaving the youth market behind, however, Kurosawa has sometimes struggled to put across his vision of the complicated dilemmas of modern adult life.
Wife of a Spy, Kurosawa’s first period piece, is a welcome return to form. The setting is Kobe, just before Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor ignited the American involvement in World War II. In 1940, Japan has already been at war with the rest of Asia for several years, and the import company owned by Fukuhara Yusaku—played by Issey Takahashi—is doing business in the conquered territory of Manchuria. For Yusaku’s beautiful wife Satoko (Yû Aoi), her successful husband’s Manchurian business trips are more a cause for worry than for rejoicing, especially when amateur moviemaker Yusaku makes a point of bringing his nephew Fumio (Ryôta Bandô) and their camera equipment along on the latest trip. Manchuria is a war zone, and security is tight.
Yusaku and Fumio are not the only men in Satoko’s life. Taiji (Masahiro Higashide), her admirer from school days, is now an ambitious officer in the Kenpeitai, the dreaded military police. Their cruel, xenophobic efforts to guard against “suspicious persons” have caused Yusaku and his sophisticated friends to fall under suspicion—for his liberal-minded amateur filmmaking and his taste in “foreign” clothes and whiskey, as well as for his activities in Manchuria. When Yusaku and Fumio return to Japan with a mysterious woman named Hiroko—the actor named Hyunri—the Kenpeitai becomes more intensely interested.
Yusaku has a secret. He witnessed the burning of “plague” victims’ bodies in Manchuria and documented what he believes are bacteriological war crimes against Chinese POWs by the Japanese Imperial Army there, with an eye toward taking the evidence to the U.S. government. Satoko is unaware of all this at first, but a cloud of doubt hangs over her and Yusaku’s home regardless. She suspects he is a womanizer with “anti-Japanese” tendencies; for his part, Yusaku suspects that his wife and Taiji are falling in love. The penalty for treason is death, and in common with its Axis partner the German Gestapo, the Kenpeitai relies on torture in their investigations. Further complications arise.
Publicity for Wife of a Spy claims that Kurosawa’s multi-layered marital melodrama/war story—written by the director with Hamaguchi Ryûsuke and Nohara Tadashi—has a whiff of Alfred Hitchcock about it, perhaps with the devious, suspenseful romance of Notorious in mind. For us, Satoko and Yusaku’s tension-filled relationship owes just as much to the labyrinthine conspiracies and paranoia of director Fritz Lang. The secrets, the suspicion, the all-powerful totalitarian apparatus. There is far more at stake than marital infidelity, but for Satoko and Yusaku the war begins at home.
Actor Aoi, Japan’s reigning screen goddess, is unforgettable in her portrayal of a woman so devoted to her principled-but-uncommunicative husband that she’s willing to follow him anywhere and do anything, because she trusts him implicitly. Their melancholy love story carries many of the same regretful ironies as previous Kurosawa efforts, with the added realization that events as dreadful as these actually happened. The truth hurts.