Wife of a Spy won the Best Director prize for Kurosawa Kiyoshi at Venice in 2020. It’s an unusual film in several ways. Kurosawa, well-known mainly as a horror/crime genre director from the 1990s and early in his career in the 1980s as a director of pinku eiga and roman porno films for Nikkatsu before the studio’s collapse, now offers a different kind of genre film distributed by the revived Nikkatsu. Wife of a Spy is a co-production between independents and NHK, the PSB (public service broadcaster) in Japan. NHK required the production to use 8K digital cameras so that the film would become an experimental/promotional vehicle for the technology. I didn’t know this until after the screening but I did notice that the HD print streaming on MUBI was sometimes very cold and bright, but at other times cinematographer Sasaki Tatsunosuke used shallow focus to blur backgrounds and sometimes low light (?) to produce a grainier image.
The only other Kurosawa film that I’ve seen which shares some of the same elements is Tokyo Sonata (Japan 2008). That film too had appeared at major festivals and was treated as an arthouse film for cinema distribution whereas Kurosawa’s genre films were generally only on DVD in the UK. Like Tokyo Sonata the new film is a melodrama of sorts but it also plays with the spy film, the mystery film, the marriage drama etc. The setting is the city of Kobe (Kurosawa’s home town), Japan’s second-largest port on the Bay of Osaka in 1940-41. Fukuhara Yusaku is a wealthy and still relative young man, running his own textile trading company. The first few scenes introduce the main characters. In a long shot sequence, a British businessman is arrested by the kenpeitai (military police responsible for security). An angry young man, Fukuhara’s nephew Fumio, protests. Then in his office Fukuhara receives a visit from the ‘squad leader’ of the kenpeitai. This turns out to ‘Taiji’, a childhood friend of Fukuhara’s wife Satoko, offering a ‘friendly’ but formal warning about the arrested spy who is a client of Fukahara. Finally we meet Satoko, masked and stealing something from a safe. She is caught by a young man, who turns out to be Fumio. We hear ‘one more time’ and realise that this an amateur film shoot organised by Yusaku.
The quartet introduced in this way offer the basis for a family melodrama of some kind Taiji still has feelings for Satoko, though his embrace of the militarism of the 1930s is a problem. The real ‘disruption’ which pushes the narrative forward is Yusaku’s decision to visit Manchuria on business in early 1941, taking Fumio with him. After his return Satoko becomes suspicious when she realises that something happened in Manchuria, which by 1941 was formally a puppet state of Imperial Japan and one which after years of Japanese occupation and repression of the Chinese population was seen as a valuable colonial territory in Japan. At this point it is perhaps helpful to correct some of the initial reviews of the film. Satoko is not an ‘actress’, she is a bored wife of a wealthy man. 1940 is not ‘before the Second World War’, Japan had been active in different ways in China since 1905 and the full-scale Sino-Japanese War began in 1937. Elsewhere in East Asia, events were influenced by the war in Europe, so at one point in the film, Satoko and Yusaku go the cinema and watch a newsreel in which a large Japanese fleet arrives in Saigon in June 1941, ostensibly to help support Vichy France to defend Indochina. The ‘Pacific War’ didn’t start until Pearl Harbour but much had already happened by then.
The critics liked the film at Venice but there have been negative comments since. Some of these refer to the slow pacing of many scenes. The Hitchcock references used in MUBI’s introduction don’t help even if I can see why Hitchcock is invoked. The image of Satoko at the safe reminds me of Marnie (1964) but the obvious reference is to Notorious and the marriage between Ingrid Bergman’s and Claude Rains’ characters. The title ‘Wife of a Spy’ also perhaps suggests a Hitchcock narrative since the famous Hitchcock ‘romance thriller’ often hinges on the trust or lack of it between the two central characters. But in the end the reference isn’t very useful. I think there is a real emotional depth to some of the scenes between Satoko, Yusaku and Taiji. I suppose there is even a ‘MacGuffin’ of sorts in the form of a document Yusaku brings back from Manchuria and also a murder mystery at one point. Even so, Kurosawa seems to be attempting something else. Whatever possessed large numbers of Japanese to embrace militarism in the 1930s comes up here against personal relationship and codes of honour. There is also a strong sense of the dilemma for the Japanese middle-class (i.e. those with some control over their lives because of social position and/or wealth). Should they fight the West or embrace its culture? Taiji warns Satoko and Yusaku that their attachment to Western dress (and drinking Scotch not Japanese whisky) marks them out. The only escape for the couple is to trust each other and try to get to the US. But the Pacific War is on the horizon. Can they get out in time? The ending of the film will no doubt frustrate some audiences but it seems appropriate to me, ending on a beach.
Wife of a Spy works for me, primarily I think, because of the strong central performances by Aoi Yu as Satako and Takahashi Issey as Yusaku, who manage to make the marriage believable. The script is by Hamaguchi Ryûsuke and Nohara Tadashi, younger writers who I think have an earlier connection with Kurosawa. The music by Nagaoka Ryosuke has also been criticised but I found it effective. I’m intrigued most I think because of the ‘feel’ of the film as historical drama. I don’t think there are as many Japanese films about this period as there are in American or European cinemas, but I have recently noted other films from South Korea and China/Hong Kong covering the period. The 8K images have something to do with that ‘feel’, but I’m not sure what as yet. There is also the suggestion that the film could be controversial in Japan where issues about the conduct of the war, especially in China, are still sensitive. Finally, I did find some echoes of other Japanese films in Wife of a Spy. One was Grave of the Fireflies, the terrific anime from 1988, also set in Kobe. The other intriguing aspect of Wife of a Spy is the use of 9.5mm film which is central to the plot. It made me think of both the earlier Kurosawa film Cure (Japan 1997) and in some ways back to the Ringu films. I don’t want to explain these references in detail at this point but it is worth remembering that in the 1930s Japanese studios were the biggest producers of films in the world, with a studio system that rivalled Hollywood but not in export terms. Moving images had become an important part of Japanese culture and as well as the newsreel that Satoko and Yusaku watch in the cinema, there is a brief clip from the feature in the programme, a ‘Nikkatsu Talkie’, Priest of Darkness (1936) directed by Yamanaka Sadao. If you get the chance to see Wife of a Spy, I’d recommend it to you.