VIFF 2021 Review: Wife of a Spy

Written by Anna Harrison

60/100

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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Tokyo Sonata

Written by Michael Clawson

90/100

Rather than filing into the stream of Tokyo office workers headed to their desks like he used to each morning, Ryūhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) suddenly finds himself routinely getting in line at his neighborhood soup kitchen, surrounded by the homeless, debris, and other dejected men in suits. The patriarch of the middle-class Japanese family that Kiyoshi Kurosawa explores in this unique and profoundly moving family drama, Ryūhei is unemployed after his job is outsourced to China, and he’s too bitter and ashamed to tell his wife and two sons the truth about no longer having paycheck. So he goes on pretending all is normal, when really he’s leaving the house everyday for the unemployment office. Unbeknownst to him, his family is hiding woes of their own. His wife Megumi (Kyōko Koizumi) is slipping into a deep malaise, his older son wants to leave Japan and join the US military, and his younger son, knowing his dad would disapprove, is quietly putting his lunch money towards piano lessons behind his parent’s back.

Kurosawa’s rhythm is characteristically idiosyncratic. There’s a gear shift in pace in the middle section when there’s an unexpected moment of terror, which reminds you that while the movie is primarily a melancholy portrait of a family in crisis, it’s from a director who’s more widely known for his ability to unsettle. In common with other Kurosawa films is the theme of alienation: as each of the Sasaki’s grapple with their individual troubles, they do so in isolation from each other, and their lack of togetherness only exacerbates their unhappiness. It’s perfectly, heartbreakingly visualized in one particular scene: Ryūhei comes home late to find his wife half asleep on the couch, but exchanges only a few words with her before going straight upstairs. “Pull me up,” Megumi practically whispers since she’s half asleep, her exhaustion as emotional as it is physical. No one’s in the room, as we can see in the wide shot that shows us her laying on the couch. Cut to a close up of her hands as she raises them up in the air: “Somebody, please pull me up.” Despite their wanting to, Ryūhei and Megumi can’t start their lives over, and they can’t ever entirely rid themselves of the pressures that modern life puts on them, but perhaps in the end they’re inching back towards family cohesion, towards listening to and supporting each other rather than retreating from each other.

Tokyo Sonata Trailer

Tokyo Sonata is currently streaming on Mubi and available to rent and purchase on Amazon.

To the Ends of the Earth

Written by Michael Clawson

90/100

No matter what she’s asked to do, be it to suffer on a janky amusement park ride that’s more like a torture device or eat an under-cooked plate of food, Yoko has a peppy, exuberant personality so long as the camera is rolling. Behind the scenes though, she’s anxious and fretful. As the host of a Japanese reality travel show currently on assignment in Uzbekistan, Yoko and her small all-male crew often attract the attention of on-lookers as they meander around the country documenting cultural customs and sites, but Yoko (Atsuka Maeda, so wonderful) is too nervous to even make eye contact with the locals, let alone actually engage with them. The fact that she can’t say more than a word or two in the local language doesn’t help. 

In crafting in this delightfully strange character study, Kurosawa moves between tonal registers with the same ease as that with which Yoko turns her bubbly persona on and off for the camera. Offbeat comedy mingles with nerve-wracking tension and suspense as we follow Yoko’s winding, unusual path towards something like self-actualization, or at least a newfound self-confidence. Yoko is a young woman with a fear of the unfamiliar, but even more than that, she’s afraid of feeling trapped. Rather than straightforwardly dissect Yoko’s psychology, however, Kurosawa takes a thrillingly unconventional approach to character, stringing together moments that follow one another unpredictably and reveal only partial, incremental insight into Yoko’s desires and insecurities. It makes her an impossibly alluring character, and Maeda delivers an immensely charming performance. Rather than TV reporting, Yoko’s true dream, we learn, is to be a singer. That detail allows for two slightly surreal musical moments that are as rapturous as they are unexpected.

Recommended

To the Ends of the Earth Trailer

To the Ends of the Earth is currently available to watch through select Virtual Cinema Venues