Central to any spy story worth its salt is the tension built around whom the audience should believe. But the memorable ones make just as powerful the theme of what the characters really do believe — as in, why they do what they do, whether they’re handler, agent, target or pawn. And to make matters even more fascinating, when some of those questions are left unanswered, that’s when some spy yarns achieve something profound about the battlefield on which they’re played.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is one of Japan’s established masters when it comes to a knotty premise wracked with tension and secrets, whether working in horror (“Pulse,” “Creepy”) or contemporary drama (“Tokyo Sonata”). It seems fitting, then, that for his first period film, he’d choose a World War II–era espionage tale, where identity and motive are always in play, and horror is real. The result is “Wife of a Spy,” one of his best features.
It’s a suspenseful homefront scenario worthy of John le Carré’s storied blend of tradecraft, history and insight into the ramifications of duplicity, and one that also garnered Kurosawa — no relation to legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa — the best director award at last year’s Venice Film Festival.
The setting is Kobe in 1940, and the story kicks off with the arrest of a British salesman suspected of espionage in his partnership with local silk merchant Yusaku (Issey Takahashi, “Shin Godzilla”). A proud cosmopolitan who dabbles in filmmaking — on the side he’s been shooting a romantic noir starring his beautiful, younger wife Satoko (Yû Aoi) and opinionated nephew Fumio (Ryôta Bandô) — Yusaku has lately harbored a deep concern for the nationalistic militarism overtaking his country.
When Yusaku’s return from a business trip to Manchuria with Fumio coincides with the mysterious death of a young woman who accompanied them back, Satoko is made suspicious of her husband. Her doubts grow after hearing insinuations made by a childhood friend of hers, now a military leader, named Taiji (Masahiro Higashide, “Asako I & II”), a handsome, unsmiling imperialist who’s been investigating Yusaku because of his Western tastes and foreign dealings.
Yusaku, confronted by his normally cheery, unbothered spouse’s sudden accusations of infidelity, tells Satoko what he discovered on his trip to China — evidence of the Japanese army’s experimenting on human prisoners, which he plans to expose for the cause of justice. What Satoko does with this information is what sets the twisty plot of “Wife of a Spy” in motion.
With the elements of a Hitchcock-style swirl of marital intrigue, entrapment, and escape firmly in place in the screenplay Kurosawa cretaed with Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Tadashi Nohara (the screenwriters of Hamaguchi’s “Happy Hour”), “Wife of a Spy” doesn’t necessarily change its tone when the stakes are raised so much as shift its concerns from what’s on the surface to what courses underneath in a time of war.
That’s because the fact of Japan’s wartime atrocities — in this story, captured on a hidden reel of film and detailed in a smuggled book; in reality, a piece of history the country has struggled to acknowledge — isn’t treated by Kurosawa as some MacGuffin with an insignificant bearing on the film’s mechanics. The impact of learning this kind of information is central to the themes of conscience and consequence that the filmmaker considers as relevant to the playing-out of the couple’s story as the suspense details are for a nail-biting narrative.
The performances fit in well with the director’s straightforward telling. Sometimes it means they come off as clinically observed, even in moments of epiphany — which may have to do with Tatsunosuke Sasaki’s ultra-crisp 8K digital cinematography (transferred to 2K for its theatrical run), a requirement for the made-for-television project. Still, the intelligence of the actors’ portrayals always comes through.
Takahashi is satisfying in his chess-piece-like part. In the title role, Aoi has the furthest to travel as the innocent swept up in a plot that ignites a purpose in her that dovetails with the passion she feels for her husband. She handles those swerves with aplomb, particularly the way Satoko’s education gradually changes her. By the nightmarish end, Aoi’s transformed physicality is the trenchant embodiment of this richly imagined history lesson of a movie, combining subterfuge, conviction and reckoning.
“Wife of a Spy” opens in New York City on Friday and Los Angeles on Sept. 24.