VIFF 2021 Review: Wife of a Spy

Written by Anna Harrison


Horror director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy has all the elements of a thrilling period piece: beautiful costumes, state secrets, wartime backdrop, all of it anchored by Yu Aoi as Satoko, whose determination to uncover the truth regarding her husband, wealthy merchant Yusaku (Issey Takahashi), who may or not be a spy, and the government mysteries swirling around the edges of their lives. There’s an ever-growing sense of unease around them as the number of uniformed men throughout their home city of Kobe grows and World War II ramps up, but Wife of a Spy never quite lives up to the promise of its premise.

Satoko begins to suspect her husband of adultery, and then of spying after childhood-friend-cum-military-police-chief Taiji (Masahiro Higashide) confides his own suspicions in Satoko. Yusaku makes trips to Manchuria with his nephew Fumio (Ryota Bando) and returns with the beautiful Hiroko (Hyunri), who turns up dead soon after, and Taiji’s advice to Satoko becomes tinged with a threatening aura. Satoko reacts with horror at her husband’s actions, but as she picks at and begins to unravel the threads connecting everyone, her worldview slowly becomes more complicated, and the navigation of her life becomes that much more difficult. 

All of these plot machinations that lead Satoko to the truth are less interesting than the woman herself and how she interacts with them; the generic plot distracts from Aoi’s performance and the interesting ideas at play here. Yusaku’s secret trips are less compelling than the offhand comments about Western versus traditional Japanese dress (Yusaku and Satoko’s Western clothes and house design pile on even more suspicion) or Taiji’s fervent, unsettling nationalism in the face of a global conflict, and the performance that Aoi gives as Satoko elevates moments in the script that, in the hands of a lesser performance, could have tanked the movie.

Even with these missteps, Wife of a Spy has surprising grace when dealing with questions of nationalism and the atrocities committed during World War II. When we finally learn that Yusaku has uncovered evidence of (presumably) Unit 731’s war crimes in Manchuria, the film becomes less a paranoid thriller and more an interrogation of what it means to be patriotic, and thus becomes much more interesting as it forces Satoko’s blind nationalism to evolve into something more complex. 

Yet even as Satoko grapples with her own country’s transgressions, we watch American forces bomb Hiroshima, adding another layer of complexity as we are shown the unutterable destruction caused by the “good guys” to whom Yusaku was trying to pass information. Satoko’s grief is made all the more potent by the more complicated feelings she now has over Japan’s role in the war, and the final scene, while melodramatic, certainly packs a punch. As a spy thriller, Wife of a Spy leaves something to be desired, but as a lesson in gray morality and against excessive nationalism, it becomes something much more intriguing.

Wife of a Spy Trailer

Wife of a Spy was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival and is currently available in limited theatrical release and virtual cinema screening through Kino Lorber.

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