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

Tokyo!


Tokyo!

Something emerges from the sewers of Tokyo.

(2008) Drama-Comedy (Liberation) Ayako Fujitani, Ryo Kase, Ayumi Ito, Denis Lavant, Jean-Francois Balmer, Renji Ishibashi, Julie Dreyfus, Yu Aoi, Teruyuki Kagawa, Naoto Takenaka. Directed by Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Joon-ho Bong

From time to time, a producer will corral highly-regarded directors to make short films about a specific subject. Like any anthology, there will be both high points and low, but the question becomes will there be enough high points to make it worth enduring the low.

The subject of this anthology is…well, Tokyo. The sole link between the three tales here is that they are set in this, the most cosmopolitan of cities. Do we get some kind of insight into the glittering enigma that is Tokyo? Yes indeed, we do which is where the segments seem to hit their stride. There are also portions of each movie that could easily be set anywhere and that’s where the movie is at its weakest.

The first segment is “Interior Design” and is directed by French auteur Gondry (who lately resides in New York), and it is in a kind of a Kafka-esque vein. A would-be director Hiroko (Fujitani) and his mousy girlfriend Akira (Kase) move into the cramped apartment of Akira’s friend Akemi (Ito). The claustrophobic conditions only serve to exacerbate certain truths about their relationship; Hiroko is an overbearing untalented self-centered douchebag.

They look for affordable housing in the city, but like most mega-cities around the world, property values are sky high and affordable housing is at a premium. In overcrowded Tokyo, space is a luxury and some of the “properties” they visit are little more than closets with portholes. The stress and alienation begin to take their toll on Akira who undergoes a remarkable transformation to escape her reality, one that surprisingly brings her the serenity she craves.

The second segment is from avant garde French director Carax, who hasn’t made a film in ten years. In it, a strange, twisted creature (Lavant) emerges from the sewers of Tokyo to wreak havoc. Looking like a deranged leprechaun on a bender, he steals money, flowers and sandwiches from the hands of shocked onlookers and stuffs them all into his mouth with equal enthusiasm (Carax playfully sets much of this scene to the iconic musical score of Godzilla). He is loathsome, disgusting and vile and Tokyo recoils but the news media have a field day.

However, the story goes from curiosity to catastrophe as the creature finds a box of old grenades in his subterranean world and decides to lob them indiscriminately. Dozens are killed, maimed or wounded and the authorities tend to take a dim view of that. The creature is arrested and a dignified Japanese magistrate (Ishibashi) intends to prosecute, but the creature speaks a language that none can understand. How can a proper trial be held if someone speaks a completely unknown language. Fortunately, an ambitious French lawyer (Balmer) claims he can speak the language of the creature and a trial goes on in which everything is translated from gibberish to French to Japanese, which brings the segment to a crashing halt. However, there is a bit of a twist ending that will either leave you giggling or scratching your head.

The final segment is from Korean director Bong (who previously helmed The Host) and is in my opinion the best of the three. In “Shaking Tokyo” a man (Kagawa) lives as a hikikomori, which is the rough equivalent of a shut-in or a hermit, someone who chooses to remain in their apartment/home. With an inheritance from his parents enough to keep his bills paid, he orders pizza and stacks the boxes neatly against a wall. Agoraphobic to a nearly paralyzing degree, his house is meticulously well-ordered to the point it is debatable whether an actual human being lives there.

When a comely pizza delivery girl (Aoi) is there during an earthquake and faints, the man is unsure what to do. He eventually revives her by tapping a tattooed “button” on her arm. Her experience with him causes her to quit her job and live the same way. When another earthquake hits, a more serious one, the man, concerned about her welfare, takes to the streets of Tokyo for the first time in ten years. What he finds there is not what he left behind precisely.

All three segments have something going for them from the twisted metamorphosis in “Interior Design” to the senseless rampage in “Merde” (yes the segment title is a naughty French word) to the sweet underlying emotion in “Shaking Tokyo.” They all have an outsider’s insight into the megalopolis that is Tokyo, from the alienation that big city dwellers often feel in Gondry’s tale, to the sins of a people erupting from beneath the surface when they’ve been repressed to long in “Merde” to the isolationism that drives people to self-exile in “Shaking Tokyo.”

All three of the directors are world class, and they exhibit why they are so highly regarded here. I was particularly impressed with Bong’s piece, which seems to have much more of the soul of Tokyo than either of the first two segments. Gondry is an impressive visual director with a wild imagination; his realistic magic is on display here but as he sometimes is prone to doing, he gets a little too out-there for my own personal taste.

Carax’s segment is a little harder to peg. While the initial scene of the man-creature emerging from the sewers is fun and compelling, when he turns the piece into a courtroom drama it all falls apart. Having two sets of interpreters for the same dialogue may be all right for short periods, but it’s nearly 20 minutes of it; sorry gang, a bit too much.

I’m not sure that this will reveal enough about the soul of Tokyo to really make it worth your while, but there are some insights as I said. I’m just not sure that they aren’t general to any city rather than specific to Tokyo, and if not, why not set this anywhere?

WHY RENT THIS: There are some really compelling moments in each of the three episodes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: As with any anthology, you take the not so good with the good.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief male nudity as well as some subtitled foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Gondry sequence is based on a graphic novel, “Cecil and Jordan in New York” by Gabrielle Bell.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Each of the segments gets their own making-of featurette, in some cases longer than the actual segment itself.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget; the film in all likelihood was a box office failure.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Faster