Love, patriotic duty, and moral justice come into conflict in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s award-winning wartime drama
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s already-legendary star continues to rise internationally with the release of his award-winning film Wife of a Spy, a subtle and suspenseful thriller that casts a critical gaze towards individual complicity in societal war crimes. In another radical shift away from the horror films of his earlier filmography, Kurosawa imbues his trademark dread and unease into an unpredictable and moving wartime love story, featuring a powerful performance by Yu Aoi as a dedicated spouse caught in an emotional triangle between love, duty, and justice—and is destined to discover how the coupling of two choices may come at the sacrifice of the other.
Aoi’s Satoko is the humble wife of silk businessman Yusaku (Issey Takahashi), whose lucrative business connections frequently take him overseas to China and the United States. As the specter of World War II looms and Japan finds itself further isolated, Yusaku and Satoko’s cosmopolitan lifestyle finds itself increasingly at odds with the austere nationalism sweeping the land. When Yusaku and their nephew (Ryota Bando) return from a mysterious government-connected trip to Manchuria with another woman, Hiroko (Hyunri), in tow, Satoko’s suspicions are high. But Yusaku’s behavior also catches the attention of Taiji (Masahiro Higashide), Satoko’s former childhood crush turned high-ranking military officer. When Hiroko is found murdered, rumors of adultery and deceit rise to the surface—but the truth extends far beyond questions of fidelity between spouses, and more towards duty to one’s country. Will Satoko defend Yusaku and his pursuit of moral justice against Japan’s secret war crimes, even if it means risking their lives in the process?
While this film is no less fascinated with the psychological rigors of its characters, it’s safe to say this is Kurosawa’s most emotional film to date. Departing from his typically cold style of filmmaking, Kurosawa encourages his audiences to connect with each of his conflicted characters. As much as we’re continuously engaged with Satoko’s investigation into her husband’s seemingly labyrinthine private life, we grow to understand and empathize with Yusaku and Taiji’s equally dedicated yet conflicting sense of patriotic and moral duty. As a result of Kurosawa’s screenplay, co-written with rising fellow auteur Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, both Satoko and the audience feel like they’re at the center of a visceral moral tug-of-war, full of shifting circumstances and revelations that only plunge these conflicts deeper into crisis.
Kurosawa’s craft behind the camera further manifests the drama in gripping ways. Ever conscious of the world outside of the frame, Kurosawa never tries to anticipate where his characters may end up, nor force his characters into awkward blocking to create an artificial sense of drama. Rather, Kurosawa keeps his audience’s rapt attention by allowing his characters to organically dictate the framing of his shots. A key example is a stunning one-shot scene between Yusaku and Satoko that reveals the central motivations behind her husband’s deception, which in turn reveals the true plot of Wife of a Spy; as one character reveals more or commands the situation, so too do they command where the camera’s attention, and ours, lies.
As the film progresses, Satoko seizes her own agency in surprising ways, in actions that don’t just align her fate closer to her husband’s but also help her understand and share Yusaku’s passion for justice at all costs. Hewing close to Hitchcock in terms of secretive fervor, the couple must enact their plot in plain sight, where the eyes of the Japanese military and police are always watching and waiting for them to slip up. The end result is a sobering indictment not just of the Japanese military’s cruel actions during World War II, but of a populace who were unable to speak out against such barbarism—whether out of choice or circumstance. Like Cure, Tokyo Sonata, and other films considered Kurosawa’s best, the controversial final moments of Wife of a Spy call into question how our better natures may conflict with the morals of the people we care about most. Whether in marriage or society as a whole, sometimes the most exacting sacrifices are the noblest and most necessary ones.
Kino Lorber presents Wife of a Spy in its theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio in a 1080p HD transfer sourced from the original 8K digital master. Accompanying is a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Surround Japanese audio track, as well as a down-mixed 2.0-channel stereo track. English subtitles are provided only for Japanese dialogue.
Shot on an experimental 8K camera for Japanese television, Wife of a Spy had to be re-color graded and adjusted in aspect ratio from 1.78:1 to 1.85:1 to successfully transition to theatrical exhibition and subsequent home video release. Even in this altered format, this transfer of Wife of a Spy is strikingly crisp and clear. There is a deliberately muted color palette throughout, as if viewing the past through a fogged lens, a decision that helps bring the past closer to the aesthetics of the present rather than a case of the latter imitating the former. While not shot on film, there is a visible amount of grain in darker scenes; it’s unclear if this artifacting is a relic of the downscaling from 8K to 1080p, but such scenes are few and far between, so viewers aren’t too distracted by this shift in picture quality.
Soundscapes are crucial elements throughout many of Kurosawa’s films, and the audio mix on Wife of a Spy is no exception. Dutiful attention is paid to the stylistically blunt and direct dialogue, but just as much focus is paid to ambient noise and foley work, giving further life to the world just outside the frame. Ryosuke Nagaoka’s ambient piano score lightly compliments the delicate visual tableau throughout the film without drawing too much focus to itself.
- The Making of Wife of a Spy: An in-depth, 40-minute fly-on-the-wall style documentary of the making of the film, intercut with on-the-fly interviews with cast and crew. Noted throughout is Kurosawa’s careful construction of the world outside the frame and attention to period details, with a discerning eye towards avoiding “modern” looks at all costs.
- Trailer for Wife of a Spy’s U.S. theatrical release.
Wife of a Spy is now on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of Kino Lorber.