In 2020, the winner of the Silver Lion for Best Directing at the Venice Film Festival was awarded to Wife of a Spy, a tense, Hitchcockian political and social thriller, based on a true story, with one of the most satisfying final twists a drama has offered in years. The film is directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to the iconic Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa), a director with an international horror cult following for his films Cure, Pulse, and more understated titles like Journey to the Shore. And while this may be his first period drama it feels like it has come right out of the 1930s (in the good ways, I promise).
It is 1940, on the eve of Japan’s involvement in World War II. Satoko (Yû Aoi) is living peacefully with her husband Yusaku (Issei Takahashi, Ghibli fans might like to know he voiced the enigmatic violin-making Seiji in Whisper of the Heart), a merchant and amateur filmmaker, in Kobe. But after a business trip to Manchuria leaves her husband uneasy, a work colleague (Ryôta Bandô) becomes confined to a nearby inn, and a childhood friend newly promoted to a military policeman (Masahiro Higashide) leaves her an ominous warning, Satoko is forced to confront the secrets being kept from her. The revelation she is greeted with leaves her torn between her love for her husband, the life they have built, and the country they call home.
The biggest take away is, perhaps unsurprisingly, seeing the wife of a spy, a character so common in these political thrillers, at the centre of the unfolding drama. ‘Smarter than she looks’ but repressed by the expectations of a housewife in Japan in the 30s, she’s the perfect example of how toxic masculinity turns women into both victim and pawn. The repeated scenes where the men tell Satoko that she ‘didn’t see’ the horrors they did — simultaneously dooming her to face those horrors herself when their ‘protection’ is ultimately snuffed out — is used to subvert the stereotype and humanise her experience. Satoko is very much the emotional anchor, and the story gradually allows her to occupy that space historically overlooked in cinema.
While at one point it seems that Satoko has taken the side of the Japanese empire, (that Satoko shows fearful confliction for the life she has built and the patriotism every country imposes on its citizens is a marvel Aoi executes flawlessly), it turns out she is far more intelligent than any of the men are giving her credit for. She is in fact several steps ahead of the game, with both the practicalities of spying in a nation with strict policing and the hard realities of sometimes having to choose who to who to help survive and who to leave for dead. The way Kurosawa uses the story structure to gradually reveal the dimensionality of its female character is reminiscent of Park Chan Wook’s Korean thriller The Handmaiden.
From one master storytelling influence to another, the sharp simplicity of Kurosawa’s period aesthetic has echoes of Tokyo Story – Kurosawa has himself cited the legendary Yasujirō Ozu as contributing greatly to his style – in beautiful technicolour. The intense light, most prominent in scenes like the bus ride where, after seeing a movie, the couple discuss their doomed flight to America, works to create a dreamlike quality to the film. It all seems hopeless to escape, too bright to be real, almost cruelly divine in how unsolvable the situation is. The moment Yusaku suggests defection the light grows almost blindingly across Satoko’s face, and again as she realises it may be their only option. Almost magical realistic in its tone, Kurosawa makes their unimaginable choice poetically accessible to those of us lucky enough to have never been faced with the same.
As much as Wife of a Spy is an entertaining political thriller, Kurosawa did not set out to tell a story about war. While shining a light on the experiences of the Japanese people at a time when their government was committing terrible violence overseas, Kurosawa focuses in on the internal emotions of a couple trying to do what’s right amidst the compulsion to save a livelihood they built for themselves. Only a seasoned storyteller like Kurosawa could pull it off, and he’s aided in his quest by co-writer Ryusuke Hamaguchi (a former student of his from Tokyo University for the Arts). Hamaguchi is the director of the upcoming Haruki Murakami adaptation Drive my Car, currently making its festival circuit debut after winning Best Screenplay at Cannes. If that isn’t a cinematic match made in heaven, what is?
Wife of a Spy is released September 17th in New York, September 24th in Los Angeles, and is available now on MUBI in the UK
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.