“Wife of a Spy” doesn’t traffic in most of the tropes of the espionage thriller. The espionage takes place off-camera. There are no shootouts, and the closest thing to a chase is a bit of the old “I think we’re being followed.”
Kiyoshi Kurasawa’s understated thriller is about trust and how it is the ultimate test of a couple’s connection, about the seemingly simple but fraught logistics of plotting an escape from a fascist police state, and about feeling morally out of step with your homeland.
Considering Japan’s long history of cinematic World War II denialism — the days when a movie like “The Last Emperor” or any film related to “The Rape of Nanjing” were banned — it’s a remarkably frank film that gets at the heart of questioning nationalism in general and “My country, right or wrong” in particular.
Yû Aoi has the title role, that of Satoko, the trusting, adoring wife of Yusaku Fukuhara (Issey Takahashi). He’s a Kobe fabrics importer/exporter, and the film opens with the arrest of a British business associate of his.
“What has Japan become?” the portly Brit protests. It’s 1940, and at least for the moment, Japan isn’t at war with any Western country.
A childhood friend Taiji (Masahiro Higashide), now an officer in military counter-intelligence, stops by and ever-so-politely confronts Yusako with his association with the accused.
“You must choose your friends,” he warns (in Japanese, with English subtitles). “Times are changing.”
In the streets of Kobe, on the docks — everywhere it seems — formations of troops are parading or marching off to ship overseas, to China, which Japan invaded years before, or to Indochina. Japan forces France to allow it to occupy the French colony after Dunkirk.
The people crowd the streets as they pass chanting “Banzai!” But not Yusako. A wiry, confident man of means, he strikes us as a cool customer. No, this British fellow isn’t a spy, he laughs.
At home, Yusaku films himself, Satoko and his nephew Fumio (Ryôta Bandô) in short, silent melodramas using his Pathe 9.5 mm camera. They show these arty potboilers to their friends.
But Yusaku is cagey, and there’s a distance between him and his submissive but more Westernized and thus less passive wife. She’s concerned about his travel plans to Japanese-occupied Manchuria, the “Settlers’ Paradise” that Japan renamed Manchukuo and which its Kwantung Army runs, encouraging Japanese immigration in the creation of what their fascist friend Hitler would later call “living space.”
Yusaku’s blather about “opportunities” there placate Satoko. Or do they? And when he returns, he’s even cagier than before. He’s seen things, awful things.
She fears for her marriage, and her mutual friendship with the suspicious Taiji plants further seeds of doubt. Is she the wife of a spy?
The conflicts here are mostly conflicting loyalties, and Aoi and Takashi manage a brittle, careful couples’ waltz around what he might be doing and her thoughts about his close association with a Brit, and plans to travel to America, which he saw, briefly, as a sailor years before.
“But they’re our enemies,” she protests. Not his, he insists. “I’m a cosmopolitan!”
That pose grates a bit in an era where bigshots of business around the world are pursuing pan-national agendas and acting without regard to “national interests.” But with the ggift of hindsight and guessing what Yusaku has learned, we buy in.
The screenplay sets up expectations, and then sets out to upend them. We’re invited to over-estimate one spouse and underestimate the other. We see the bond grow as they scramble to turn their Yen into “metal” — jewelry you can take on a trip, one that might be permanent.
Kurosawa — “Tokyo Sonata” is still his best-known film in the West (and no, he’s not related to Akira Kurosawa) — tries to tell an expansive, saga-length story on a budget, taking the characters on into World War II. That leads to anticlimactic moments in what plays as an epilogue that rather dull the impact of the film’s true climax.
Similar movies set in Germany (“13 Minutes,” “Sophie Scholl”) managed far more suspense and pathos.
And the English speaking bit players seriously let down the film. I could round up more convincing actors at any regional theater in America.
But Kurosawa has made a period piece with believable characters and intrigues that generally avoid melodrama. The stakes are human-scaled and deathly personal. And the script and players ensure that we ride out the same conflicting loyalties and emotions that they do, forcing ourselves into their shoes and never letting hindsight give us an easy way out.
Rating: unrated, torture
Cast: Yû Aoi, Issey Takahashi, Ryôta Bandô, Masahiro Higashide
Credits: Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, scripted by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Tadashi Nohara. A Kino Lorber (Sept. 17) release.
Running time: 1:56