Wife of a Spy (Supai no tsuma)

Danger lurks everywhere in prewar Japan.

(2020) Historical Drama (Kino Lorber) Yû Aoi, Issey Takahashi, Masahiro Higashide, Ryôta Bandô, Yuri Tsunematsu, Minosuke, Hyunri, Takashi Sasano, Chuck Johnson, Nihi. Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

 

Marriage is built on trust. Trust comes with open and honest communication. Certainly we all have our secrets and over-sharing isn’t necessarily healthy for a relationship, but without communication, there can never be trust and without trust, no marriage can survive.

Satoko (Aoi) loves her husband Yusaku (Takahashi) very much. He is a prosperous silk merchant in the Japanese city of Kobe in 1940 during the height of imperialist Japan. He fancies himself a cosmopolitan sort, having visited America (and liking it) and being fond of Western customs. But Japan is in the middle of an era of retrenchment, when doing things – like wearing a suit and tie or drinking whiskey will bring the suspicions of the police upon you for being “un-Japanese.”

Yusaku also likes to direct home movies that are silent, vaguely noir espionage thrillers starring Satoko and his nephew Fumio (Bandô), who also works for him in the silk impor/export business. Satoko’s childhood friend Taiji (Higashide) who is now the head of the local military police, warns Satoko about her husband’s Western ways, and Western associations – a British client of theirs (Johnson) is arrested as a spy. Yusaku bails him out but Taiji is now watching Yusaku’s every move.

\So it’s the perfect time for Yusaku to take Fumio on a month-long trip to Manchuria, recently conquered by Japan, right? But when he comes back, he begins acting cagey, arousing the suspicions of Satoko and Taiji both. But while Taiji thinks that the liberal Yusaku might be getting involved with espionage, Satoko is thinking he’s getting involved with the mysterious woman Hiroko (Hyunri) that he brought back with him from Manchuria. When she turns up dead on the beach, things take a turn for the worse.

Kurosawa certainly knows his movie lore. He manages to capture all sorts of different genres from the era, from noir to melodrama to romance. This movie is one I almost wish had been filmed in black and white; it certainly would fit right in with any TCM movie marathon. He also gets an impressive performance from his leading lady. Satoko starts off as being a bit of a ditzy diva, goes through an “anything for hubby” stage, and then ends up as a woman in peril. Aoi carries off each version of her character with aplomb and makes each change in her attitude very natural and understandable. As submissive as Satoko is initially, by the end of the movie she’s far stronger than anyone might have thought she’d turn out to be.

He also knows how to make the suspense intense. He brings up the level of tension almost imperceptively through the first half of the film so that by the time things come to a head, you don’t notice you’ve been sitting on the edge of your chair for the past half hour. His work here shows that he should be a much more well-known talent here than he is; he’s basically known for Tokyo Sonata and Kairo, two fine films, but he’s clearly a world-class talent. With a name like Kurosawa, you almost have to be (although he’s not related to the iconic Japanese director).

It is rare for Japanese films to be critical of their government’s behavior during the Imperial era of the 30s and 40s but this movie takes on events of actual wrongdoing that is pretty much never discussed. Not many directors feel comfortable questioning the misdeeds of their country’s past, but Kurosawa is evidently an exception. Incidentally, the lab referred to in the movie actually existed and the things that Yusaku and Fumio claim that happened there, actually did. That lab is a museum today.

This has the look and feel of a classic film, and the quality to become a classic in its own right. While it may fall on the overly melodramatic side upon occasion, Kurosawa never loses sight of his main focus and keeps his eye on the prize throughout. While the coda (which takes place five years after the film’s action begins) may seem a bit anti-climactic (and indeed, I thought it wasn’t really necessary), the movie nonetheless takes you back in a good way.

REASONS TO SEE: A throwback of a film in all the right ways. Really gets the suspense dialed up. Picks up the pace to a fever pitch in the second half.
REASONS TO AVOID: Piles on the melodrama a bit too thickly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and some scenes of torture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Fumio grumpily refers to Manchuria as “settler’s paradise,” he is echoing a slogan that the Japanese government actually used when resettling Manchuria with Japanese peasants in the 30s and 40s.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Kino Marquee
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews; Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Zookeeper’s Wife
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Secret of Sinchanee

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