Approaching his fourth decade making movies, Kiyoshi Kurosawa released his first period piece last year, the relatively sedate wartime melodrama Wife of a Spy, which screens tonight as part of Japan Cuts 2021. The film preserves the psychological richness of the spy drama while discarding the obnoxious tendency of the genre to revel in sociopathic hijinks. While still providing clever twists and a few white-knuckle encounters, Kurosawa teases out the psychological richness of spy stories, which at their best concern deception and trust of the self and others.
Yu Aoi stars as Satoko Fukuhara, contented wife of “cosmopolitan” merchant and amateur filmmaker Yusaku, played by Issey Takahashi. Satoko is dedicated to her husband but grows suspicious of his lack of patriotism after Japan joins the Axis powers. He fantasizes of visiting America once more before it enters the war, and maintains his business relationship with Western merchants while she mourns her loss of his confidence. The police come snooping around when an associate is connected to a murder, leading Yusaku to finally confess to Satoko his role in smuggling evidence of Japanese biological warfare against China. He intends to expose these war crimes to “impeach [Japan] in international politics” and draw the United States into the war. As she mourns the loss of their domestic complacency, Satoko insists upon a role in the plot. She relishes the glamourous role of a spy’s wife even as Yusaku emphatically denies the designation on account of his freelance status. She giddily embraces the intrigues of exchanging currency and evading tails, feeling for the first time that she is truly “living with” her husband. Satoko’s reconsideration of her place in the political sphere evolves until the final frame, but to say more would be unkind.
Kurosawa captures everything in stately, chilly frames, letting Aoi’s performance generate the film’s true heat. Her performance is a celebration of the cathartic possibilities of melodrama as she emphatically yells, cries, giggles and yearns. Kurosawa showers his sets with heavy light cast through windows, blanking out any details beyond the window frames. Even certain exterior shots sport a sky obscured by oppressive white light. It’s not the metaphorical light of truth, but the uncertain freedom that accompanies political action.