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Film Review | Venice 2020 'Wife
of a Spy'('Spy no Tsuma')
by Deborah Young, Hollywood Reporter 9/9/2020
An intriguing marital battle.
Winner of the best director award at the Venice
An absorbing, exotic, well-paced thriller with moments of
disconcerting realism and horror.
Kurosawa occasionally struggles to balance genre thrills with the film's more internalized
central conflict, but a haunting coda helps thread that needle and sew this thoughtful war story to a
close that makes good on its massive stakes. -- indieWire
On the eve of WW II, a
young Japanese wife discovers her businessman husband is intent on revealing Japan’s dirty secrets to
the Americans in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s first period drama.
Set in 1940 in Kobe, Japan, with an epilogue during the bombing of the city in 1945, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s intriguingly
titled Wife of a Spy (Spy no Tsuma) bookends the
Second World War in an absorbing, exotic, well-paced thriller with moments of disconcerting realism and
horror. Its spot in Venice competition is a well-earned promotion for the director after his many
accolades for films like Kairo, Tokyo
Sonata and Before We
As Kurosawa’s first historical picture, Wife of a Spy will win no awards for imaginative period
creation — in fact the sets, costumes and lighting sport the distanced look of an old movie into which
new characters have been inserted. But perhaps this is deliberate, because Kurosawa and his co-
screenwriters Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Tadashi Nohara cleverly
incorporate movie- making into the plot, confusing the viewer about what is reality and what is fiction.
Successful silk merchant Yusaku Fukuhara (Issey Takahashi, Kill Bill, Shin
Godzilla) is a suave, cosmopolitan liberal married to pretty Satoko (Yu Aoi, Birds Without
Names). His disgust at the aggressive war-mongering of the period makes him instantly
likable. Her apolitical coquettishness leaves a question mark. Their playful intimacy is established in a
scene in black and white in which Satoko steals money from a safe. It turns out to
be a scene in an amateur film in the Fantomas vein that Yusaku is directing for his
amusement and that of his sophisticated, Westernized friends.
Yusaku keeps abreast of political developments and realizes the times are changing
in Japan. There are uniformed squadrons of soldiers putting on pubic displays of bravado on the streets,
and wearing Western clothing and drinking whisky are now frowned upon as un-Japanese.
But Yusaku refuses to be intimidated by
the city’s new head of military police, Taiji (Masahiro Higashide),
whom he knows socially as Sakoto’s schoolmate. When a British friend and client is arrested as a spy,
the merchant courageously puts up bail to have him released, though Taiji warns him it’s dangerous and
the police are keeping an eye on him.
Early on, doubts are sowed about the loving
couple. Sakoto invites Taiji over one afternoon when she’s
alone; to what end is not clear. Yusaku takes off suddenly for a month
in Manchuria with his nephew Fumio (Ryota Bando). Something very
upsetting happens during their trip, and when they return they bring with them a mysterious woman
and a notebook full of information about the atrocities committed by a radical faction of the Imperial
Japanese Army. They also have a film proving what they say is true, and Yusaku is determined to turn it
over to the Americans.
But such is the ambiguity of the acting that
when Sakoto forces him to come clean and tell her what's going on, even his
impassioned speech in defense of America and liberty leaves one wondering if he’s told her the whole
Then, when the
woman he brought back from Manchuria is found dead in the sea and Fumio is
arrested for her murder, Sakoto makes up her mind to defend her marriage and
keep her husband out of prison. It’s almost as though she’s still acting in a spy movie as she stealthily
opens her husband’s safe, the combination of which she knows by heart. But who is she really bent on
betraying? All bets are off until a shockingly clever twist ends the suspense, augmented in any case
by Ryosuke Nagaoka's score.
But this is not the end of the film. Changing register from melodrama to tragedy, Kurosawa leaps ahead to the end of
the war and the bombing of Kobe (also seen in Studio Ghibli’s famous animated feature Grave of
The final scene on a
deserted beach is a bold finale that casts a cloud of doubt over love and trust and ideology.
Production companies: NHK, NHK Enterprises, Incline C&I Entertainment