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

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka)


Moments of delight amidst the horrors of war.

Moments of delight amidst the horrors of war.

(1988) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara, Akemi Yamaguchi, J. Robert Spencer (English version), Corinne Orr (English version), Amy Jones (English version), Veronica Taylor (English version), Crispin Freeman (English version), Nick Sullivan (English version), Dan Green (English version), George Leaver (English version), Shannon Conley (English version). Directed by Isao Takahata

Offshoring

The horrors of war don’t begin and end on the battlefield. War effects everyone, not just the combatants. Sometimes the worst aspects of war are felt at home.

In the waning days of World War II Seita (Tatsumi/Spencer), a teenage boy and his four-year-old sister Setsuko (Shiraishi/Orr) live in the port town of Kobe in Japan. American bombers are a common sight and when they come to Kobe, they come bearing napalm. The city, mostly built of paper and timber, burns like a firecracker. Their mother (Shinohara/Taylor) is badly burned and eventually succumbs to her grievous injuries. They go to live with their aunt (Yamaguchi/Jones).

However, as food shortages become acute, their aunt becomes more and more indifferent to their plight, raging against their inability to “earn” what she cooks and after they sell their mother’s kimono and buy rice with it, keeps the lion’s share of the rice for herself. Seita and Setsuko decide to strike out on their own and find a nice hillside cave to take shelter in.

Although Seita has some money from his mother, enough to buy food, there is no food to be bought and he is reduced to thieving and scrounging. As the children slowly starve however, they manage to find moments of delight – a gaggle of fireflies that light up the cave one night, or playing with air bubbles in a local river. But the need for food to survive trumps all and the children are in dire straits. Can Seita find a way to keep them both alive?

The answer to that question comes at the very beginning of the movie. I won’t spoil it for you here but most of the movie takes place as an extended flashback, and the viewer’s knowledge of the fate of the children colors the entire film. Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most powerful emotional experiences that has ever been committed to celluloid, something that stays with you and haunts you long after the film ends. Many critics, as jaded moviegoers as can possibly be, who see the movie speak of being moved to tears and being unable to watch it a second time, although they are near universal with their praise.

The animation here is beautiful and occasionally delightful even though the subject is grim (having a child watch his mother’s burned, maggoty corpse being carted away is something Pixar is unlikely to ever display) it is startlingly breathtaking looking at the bombs, flying down from the sky trailing cloth streamers, or the fireflies dancing in the cave, or the children making play food out of mud.

It has been described as maybe the ultimate anti-war movie and while the director has objected strenuously to that depiction, referring to it as more of a relationship film between the brother and sister, the effect is nonetheless very much about the stark and brutal realities of war regardless of the director’s intentions. You cannot watch the plight of these children and be unmoved.

The reason for that is because both Seita and Setsuko are more than just cartoon characters in a literal sense; they are given personalities that make the tragedy all the more awful. While some complain about Japanese anime as being too cutesy (a charge that isn’t without merit), despite the gigantic eyes and tiny mouths that is characteristic of the art form, these children remain unforgettable, indelible images that will haunt you weeks after you see it.

Some may be hesitant to see this movie because I’m making it sound like an endurance test in watching it and that’s not the case, not really. Certainly it will tap into powerful emotions and some may find that to be uncomfortable. However, it is certainly a film that is experienced rather than watched; you cannot simply passively sit on your couch and dismiss the movie half an hour after it’s over. It demands your immediate and intimate involvement and no matter who you are, it draws you in and forces you to feel. The catharsis of a movie like this is incalculable.

Some movies simply transcend the genres that are ascribed to them and become something different, something more – a human movie. Possibly because this was based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Nosaka Akiyuki whose sister did die of starvation during the war, and whose death has haunted him the rest of his life. His anguish is palpable in the novel and Takahata has managed to transcribe that anguish to the screen. This is a movie everyone should experience at some time in their lives.

NOTE: It should be noted that the movie is currently out of print on both DVD editions although it is still available for sale on Amazon both in new and used formats. While the Blu-Ray was out of stock as of this writing, hopefully it will soon be back on the shelves and available for purchase.

WHY RENT THIS: Will create an emotional response in everyone. Beautifully crafted and animated. Powerful themes and thought-provoking concepts.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dark themes may be too intense for some children.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes; may be too dark and intense for some children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the only film adaptation of her work that Agatha Christie was ever truly satisfied with. She attended the premiere in 1974 and would die 14 months later in 1976.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Collector’s Edition DVD includes an interview with the late Roger Ebert on how the film succeeds where other films fail, as well as a round table discussion of the historical perspective of the war in 1945, the portrayal of the war in the film and how it reflected the facts of the times, and a look at the locations portrayed in the film and how they looked both then and now. The more remastered DVD edition doesn’t include these features but the overall look of the film is far superior, so make your choice accordingly.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Not currently available but will shortly be re-released), Amazon (not available), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wind Rises
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Far From the Madding Crowd