In 1940s Showa era Japan, wives were expected to be loyal to their husbands, but everyone was supposed to obediently serve the state. Consequently, Satoko Fukuhara finds herself feeling conflicted when she suspects her husband of conspiring against the militarist government in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy, which opens today in New York.
Yusaku Fukuhara owns a prosperous trading company. That means he has always been a good provider, but it also brings him into contact with foreigners, like his American customer, Mr. Drummond, who will be expelled from the country after spending an inhospitable night with the police. Clearly, the significance of the incident registers more with Fukuhara than his wife. Shortly thereafter, Fukuhara leaves for Manchuria with his nephew Fumio Takeshita, hoping to find business opportunities. Instead, they witness wholesale atrocities.
Meanwhile, Satoko Fukuhara’s old torch-carrying school friend Yasuharu “Taiji” Tsumori starts nosing around. He returned to Kobe as an extremely rigid police intelligence officer. Tsumori was already predisposed to dislike her husband, even before his investigations turn up reasons to suspect the trader/traitor. However, he hopes she will be a different case entirely. Indeed, the question of just where her loyalties and motivations lay is what this film is all about.
Wife is part thriller, part tragedy, and part historical indictment. In terms of genre, it represents a departure for Kurosawa, but the tone of restrained, almost suffocating foreboding is not unlike some of his finer horror films. It is not exactly a classic nail-biter, but there are several shocking developments.
Yu Aoi, who has been something like Japan’s national sweetheart after emerging as a child-star, is instrumental to this film’s success. She looks innocent, but she can certainly surprise viewers. Ultimately, she takes her character to some very dark places, especially during the third act. Similar praise goes to Issey Takashi playing her husband. These are two very intriguing performances, because they convince us both spouses are smarter and more complicated than they appear.
Kiyoshi and cinematographer Tatsunosuke Sasaki original shot Wife in new-fangled 8K, but it still looks great stepped-down to 2K. It is a richly produced period piece, somewhat thematically comparable to Yoji Yamada’s under-appreciated Kabei: Our Mother, but with effective elements of intrigue added into the mix. This could very well be Kiyoshi’s most accessible film and also one of his best. Very highly recommended, Wife of a Spy opens today (9/17) in New York, at the IFC Center.