WWII Espionage From Another Perspective
DIRECTED BY KIYOSHI KUROSAWA/JAPANESE/2021 (U.S. Release)
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: NOVEMBER 16, 2021/KINO LORBER
Most of us are raised in patriotism by default. Even in households where the flag isn’t prominently displayed and aspects of national exceptionalism aren’t routinely discussed, lifestyle and social conditioning make their ingrained marks. Inevitably, disillusionment comes. But what happens when the realization that one’s own country is problematic arrives too late? What if “problematic” doesn’t begin to accurately label it? What happens when you suddenly realize that you’ve been an active participant on the very wrong side of history?
Such is the case for Satoko Fukuhara, the titular and true-life wife of a spy. Satoko, we gather, is a woman of status if not gumption, good at looking good in high-end fashions and immaculate hairstyles. Understandably, she doesn’t want things to change for herself. For the longest time, she had no idea of her husband’s anti-Japanese activities. When she finds out, a potent identity crisis is triggered, forcing her to choose between love and strong patriotic loyalty. By the end, she must set foot into Hell’s many fires…
Satoko’s husband, Yūsaku (Issey Takahashi) has filmic proof of the atrocities committed in the historical “Unit 731”, a quite real Japanese bio-facility in occupied Manchuria that conducted secret experiments on civilians, and even intentionally spread a plague. Yūsaku’s goal is simply to share this truth with the world. If that means getting the film into Allied hands, then that is what he must do. Along the way, all manner of loyalties are tested as notions of Westernization of Japan and its Imperialist not-so-distant past are compellingly explored. And once again, though not nearly as overtly as Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, celluloid made to be a tool for victory in World War II.
Actress Yū Aoi thoroughly anchors Wife of a Spy in her crushingly sensitive portrayal of Satoko. The fact that she was completely overlooked in terms of major year-end acting awards is a sad oversight on behalf of the broader film community. Yū essentially anchors Wife of a Spy, a sometimes narratively sly tale that trades most heavily on suppressed emotion, things unspoken, and moral grappling. All of the cast, which includes model/actor Masahiro Higashide, Takashi Sasano (Bright Future), and Ryōta Bandō, pull their weight wonderfully, all nicely of a piece and on the very same page.
Wife of a Spy (スパイの妻) did quite well in its festival run prior to its pandemic-hobbled release. (Though beautifully cinematic with its lush cinematography by Tetsunosuke Sasaki, it unfortunately wound up being first broadcast on Japanese television in June of 2020, when it was still very new). Most notably, it won the coveted Silver Lion at the 77th Annual Venice Film Festival. Some, however, view Wife of a Spy as a softening of its director, Japanese horror film icon Kiyoshi Kurosawa (“the David Cronenberg of Japan”). Such disappointment is, however, at least somewhat misguided, as it must be remembered that even Cronenberg himself veered into historical drama later in his own career. (As far back as 1993, Cronenberg made M. Butterfly; in 2011 he delivered the thematically on-point A Dangerous Method).
Kino Lorber, which oversaw the film’s domestic release in 2021, has since released the Wife of a Spy to DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming. In observation of the lived-in tactility and brilliance of the image, the Blu-ray version (reviewed here) comes very highly recommend. Besides an excellent presentation of the film itself (presented in Japanese with English subtitles), the disc also features a brief making-of video (spotlighting director Kurosawa as perhaps gracefully aging into a new phase of his career) and the trailer.
While perhaps not what fans have come to expect from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Wife of a Spy resonates as nothing less than a full-bodied labor of love and opportunity for national reconning. It’s an oblique and transportive slow-burn espionage tale that resonates far beyond its discovery.