After leveraging his success in J-horror into a string of grounded social dramas that culminated with the 2008 masterpiece “Tokyo Sonata,” Japanese auteur Kurosawa Kiyoshi seemed to hit the ceiling of his talent or grow bored of himself. Possibly both. The years that followed told the story of a restless artist who was desperate for something — anything — that might live up to the prescient chill of “Pulse,” or the disquieting uncertainty of “Bright Future.”
Kurosawa’s search led him down an increasingly esoteric path that saw him zig-zag from a pair of lifeless ghost dramas (“Journey to the Shore” and the French-language “Daguerreotype”), to an interminable alien invasion throwback (“Before We Vanish”), a toothless “return-to-form” (the psychological thriller “Creepy”), and even the godforsaken wilds of television (“Penance,” which is somehow one of the only recent Kurosawa projects that doesn’t feel like it’s five hours long). By the time last year’s odd and comparatively entrancing “To the Ends of the Earth” found the director trawling for purpose in the arid sands of Uzbekistan, it seemed like he might never find his way back home.
In that light, his “Wife of a Spy” has to be seen as an extremely pleasant surprise. While this crisp and subdued Hitchcockian melodrama represents yet another unexpected pivot from a filmmaker who’s never liked putting one foot in front of the other (it’s Kurosawa’s first period piece), it’s also just a well-done slab of red meat from someone who hasn’t served up a satisfying meal in so long that it seemed as if he might’ve forgotten how. There’s never a bad time for a self-possessed marriage story about love, loyalty, and unspeakable war crimes, but Kurosawa shoots this one with the kind of cool-headed resolve that his characters find hard to come by. And while “Wife of a Spy” isn’t quite robust enough to auger a full-blown resurgence, the film’s best moments shimmer with the anxiety and nebulousness that Kurosawa harnessed so well in the years before it began to seem as if they were harnessing him.
But it’s going to take some patience to see it. Despite an opening shot that seems ripped out of a “Spy vs. Spy” cartoon and some movie-within-a-movie business that promises a more stylish affair than the one we ultimately get, “Wife of a Spy” is slow to find its groove. The action begins in Kobe circa 1940, where a wealthy merchant with a good head on his shoulders holds a finger up to the wind and feels a war coming towards his country. His name is Fukuhara Yusaku (stoic TV star Takahashi Issey), and his closest American business partner has been arrested for “leaking military secrets.” True or not, Yusaku recognizes nationalism’s tightening grip, and his first response isn’t to pick a side between the Allies and the Axis powers, but rather to go on a shopping spree around Asia while it’s still safe to do so.
He’s more practical than partisan — the solid, dependable sort of man who should make for a good husband. But his marriage to the smiley and seemingly pliant Satoko (“They Say Nothing Stays the Same” actress Aoi Yû) is stiff and untested; pleasant, yet porous enough for secrets to seep into the blank space between them. And when Yusaku sends word that he and his nephew Fumio (Bandô Ryôto) are going to be away on business in Manchuria for two weeks longer than anticipated, it’s surprising to see how fast Satoko’s thoughts flare into suspicions.
Then again, maybe there’s good reason for that; rumor has it that Yusaku has returned to Japan shaken and with another woman in tow. He’s also brought home some suspicions of his own, as he doesn’t take kindly to the news that Satoko has been visited by her childhood friend Taiji (“Asako I+II” actor Higashide Masahiro), a handsome military up-and-comer whose nostalgia is almost as strong as his nationalism. When someone winds up dead and Taiji begins to suspect that Yusaku had something to do with her murder — that his Manchurian getaway may have been a cover to collect intel for an enemy country — Satoko’s begins to wonder if she and her husband have ever been honest with each other.
Is Yusaku faithful? It depends as to whom. Is he a spy? Well, it’s not quite as cut and dry as the film’s title might suggest. Is the tension between him and his wife certain to bubble over into betrayal? All signs initially point to yes, but soon become as shadowy as Satoko’s Lynchian nightmares, and no more real than the Mizoguchi drama Satoko lies about seeing one afternoon. As bad as it might be if Yusaku were keeping a historic secret from Satoko, it could be even worse if he didn’t trust her enough to share it. A spy has a choice to make, but the wife of a spy has only a cross to bear.
Shooting in ultra-sharp 8K HD, Kurosawa renders the past in a severe hyper-reality that starkly contrasts against the sumptuousness we’ve come to expect from movies like this. Noirish silhouettes stalk these characters as they lob accusations at each other across the film’s small array of interior sets, but the flat and decidedly unromantic lighting keeps things sterile in a way that should frustrate anyone looking for clues on either side of the screen. Yusaku and Satoko have seen (and made) enough movies to think that close-ups and crescendos will help them divine between heroes and villains, but Kurosawa is less interested in raw suspense than he is the sinking feeling that history only reveals itself in hindsight. Even in a heightened situation like this — one involving bio weapons, smuggled reels of surveillance footage, and forged letters of transport — the truth isn’t always dramatic enough to see clearly. Until it is.
While “Wife of a Spy” eventually narrows into a more conventional groove that doesn’t benefit as much from Kurosawa’s restrained approach, the unformed middle portions of this movie are allowed to sink into the same kind of lucid interiority that co-writers Hamaguchi Ryusuke and Nohara Tadashi brought to their monumental drama “Happy Hour.” Satoko might not seem to have much agency of her own at first, but this film belongs to her, and it turns on the strength of her convictions.
The process by which she makes up her mind and decides which of the men in her life to trust is striking for its radical straightforwardness, and Aoi’s steely performance allows for a heroine who can drop one mask and seamlessly slip on another without ever being at risk of forgetting who she is underneath. When Satoko is shown the truth, she holds on to it with a grip that no one should underestimate. 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. Return to form or not, it sure is nice to see a Kurosawa movie that feels like he’s holding on to something, and not scrambling to figure out where it went.
“Wife of a Spy” premiered in Competition at the 2020 Venice International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.