The Wife of a Spy (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A dry but compelling historical drama by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest film “The Wife of a Spy”, which won the Silver Lion award at the Venice International Film Festival in last year, is a dry but compelling historical drama set in Japan during the World War II. While it takes some time to generate enough tension and momentum to engage us, the movie gives us a number of effective suspenseful moments once everything is set and ready in the story, and we become more emotionally involved in what is being at stake for its main characters as the story eventually arrives at its inevitable ending.

During the first act, the movie depicts how everything looks fine and well in the daily life of Satoko Fukuhara (Yū Aoi) and her businessman husband Yūsaku (Issey Takahashi). It is 1940, and things have been much more unstable and uncertain inside and outside their country due to the World War II, but they have been leading a comfortable life of luxuries in their big house nonetheless. It seems that everything will remain all right for them as usual no matter what will happen in the near future, and, needless to say, the current political situation of their country is the last thing to worry about in Satoko’s viewpoint, though she is concerned a bit when her husband later goes to Machuria for some business matter and then gets delayed there for a while.

However, we come to gather that there is something fishy going on around Yūsaku. At the beginning of the story, there is a serious matter involved with a longtime British business partner of his, and Taiji Tsumori (Masahiro Higashide), a military investigator who is incidentally a longtime childhood friend of Satoko and still seems to have some feelings toward her, summons Yūsaku for interrogation. Although Yūsaku’s British business partner is eventually released for the lack of incriminating evidence, he soon comes to leave Japan for being suspected of espionage activities, and Tsumori later warns Satoko that she and her husband should be more careful and discreet than before.

While she does not pay much attention to this sincere warning from her old childhood friend, Satoko soon finds herself becoming more aware of her husband’s rather elusive sides – especially after he returns from Manchuria. When she welcomes her returning husband at the port, there is a young woman who may be associated with him, and Satoko’s suspicion on her husband is gradually increased when that young woman in question is found murdered some time later.

Because of the very title of the film, it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Yūsaku has been secretly planning to commit a serious act of treason because of what he accidentally discovered in the middle of his trip in Manchuria. There is a secret Japanese military facility where many heinous medical experiments have been done on prisoners (As many of you know, such facilities did exist in Manchuria), and he is quite determined to deliver the incriminating documents and records on that to the US government – even though this will surely bring his country into the war with US.

When she belatedly comes to learn of what her husband has been hiding behind his back, Satoko is understandably shocked and then scared about what may happen next to them because of that, but then there comes a crucial point where she must make a decision for herself after facing those atrocities hidden from Japanese people as well as the outside world. The camera simply looks at Satoko’s expressionless face for a while, but that is more than enough for us to understand her following actions, which inevitably bind her more to her husband later in the story.

As Satoko becomes far more active than before, the screenplay by Kurosawa and his co-writers Ryūsuke Hamaguchi and Tadashi Nohara begins to accumulate suspense while occasionally giving us a number of tense moments. There is a restrained but undeniably chilling scene where Tsumori, who comes to suspect Yūsaku more than before, flatly demonstrates to Yūsaku how far he is willing to go for what is necessary for the country in his firm belief, and that is why we come to brace ourselves more when Yūsaku and Sakoto embark on a considerably risky escape plan for accomplishing their mission.

Using a small number of plain sets and locations, the movie often feels like a modest chamber drama, and it certainly depends a lot on the talent and presence of its three main cast members. While Issey Takahashi and Masahiro Higashide hold the ground in their opposite positions, Yū Aoi is quite effective in a number of dramatic key scenes in the film, and she is particularly good when her character serenely beholds the eventual outcome of the war poured upon her world. Even though we are not so sure about her character’s state of mind at that point, Aoi is simply magnificent in her following delivery of emotional devastation, and this feels all the more harrowing as the movie subsequently delivers its phlegmatic epilogue.

In conclusion, “The Wife of a Spy”, which was originally produced as a local TV movie, may look milder compared to Kurosawa’s recent works such as “Creepy” (2016), but it is still a well-made period drama equipped with good mood and solid performance, and its highlights certainly enlivened me a bit when I watched it at last night. Its achievement may be modest on the whole, but it is certainly another interesting work from Kurosawa, and I am glad to see that he is still proficient as before.

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