PAGE 04: Closing Film: Wife of a Spy

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By Rohan Menezes

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy (Spy no Tsuba in the original Japanese) – a thrilling period piece about a couple in World War II Japan – is a gritty ending note for the 51st International Film Festival of India. 

Acclaimed as intense and moving, it centers on Satoko Fukuhara (Aoi Yu), a filmmaker and his pretty, socially suave wife Yusaku (Issey Takahashi), a westernized liberal silk merchant. In the 1940s, with troops constantly marching through the streets, the couple’s love of western clothes and whiskey is frowned upon as anti-national. Satoko’s childhood friend, now a military chief of police, constantly reminds her of that. 

Yusaku shows contempt for the political developments of the time, especially endless warmongering. He is unafraid of standing against it. But things come to head when, after a business trip to Manchuria with his nephew, Yusaku comes back with film of Japanese military atrocities, with the intent to smuggle it to America. He also brings along an unknown woman, who is mysteriously found dead soon after. 

Taiji arrests the nephew on suspicion of murder, while Yusaku continues his path of becoming a spy against the Japanese Empire. Satoko is initially supportive, even declaring in one scene showcased in the movie trailer: “If you are a spy, I will become the wife of a spy!” But things spiral out of control as Satoko is caught in a web of intrigue, and is forced to decide whether or not to support her husband, who becomes dangerously intent on opposing the government, with a suspicious Taiji hot on his heels. 

This film blends movie-in-movie elements (as Satoko continues to make her films throughout all of this) in with the wartime period drama, and adds yet another genre to Kurosawa’s belt. The acclaimed Kobe native has previously won recognition for films as diverse as the horror hit Pulse 2001 (nominated for Prize of Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival) and the alien sci-fi thriller Before We Vanish 2017(which netted him the Japan Academy Film Prize for Best Director). 

However, Kurosawa insisted to Screendaily that Wife of a Spy (which won him Best Director at the Venice Film Festival in 2019)was not a war movie — and certainly, for almost the entire movie, there are no actual scenes of combat. The war remains in the background as Satoko and Yusaku’s drama unfolds. 

The director sees connections between all his movies despite radically different themes. He says, “Although all my past films have had a contemporary setting, a recurring theme has been the way our society is structured and how the individual either goes along with or fights against the system. It just so happened that by setting the story in early 1940s Japan, there was that much more of a conflict between the individual and society. How do individuals sustain their freedoms when they’re at the mercy of societal systems? How do they pursue their hopes and dreams? I’m hoping that’s the message the international audience can take away from the film.”

The film is almost entirely set in Kurosawa’s home town of Kobe, a choice by the studio (NHK) not the director himself, who has previously said he is uncomfortable writing about his own townspeople – so much so that he wrote four of the lead characters as being from Yokohama instead. 

However, the scenery of Kobe is explored throughout the film. Kurosawa explained to that  low budgets limited him to locations in contemporary Kobe, thus yielding some real gems. The couple’s house is an actual western-style home from the same era in which the film is set, for example. Combined with NHK’s futuristic new ultra-high definition 8k cameras, the film ended up as a historical period piece with extremely well-defined images. According to Kurosawa, after much editing to remove some of “that realness and make it more of a period piece…it yielded good results as it’s almost like you’re watching a moving piece of art or a painting.”

While no doubt an excellent testament to Kurosawa’s versatility and abilities, as the reception in Venice attests, it must be noted that the film revisits a controversial part of Japanese history. The Japanese atrocities in Manchuria, including human experimentation and use of chemical weapons, have been a sensitive subject for decades. Kurosawa admitted to Screendaily that while he hoped the film would generate controversy, he did not expect it, saying “there doesn’t seem to be a lot of sentiment to revisit the past in Japan – so I’m presuming there’s not going to be much discussion about it.”

In fact, The Japan Times praised his for laying “bare wartime atrocities” and described the “gripping” film as “more than a penetrating study of one woman’s troubled psyche; it’s also an unflinching gaze at the horror of a world gone mad. In other words, classic Kurosawa.”

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