Awarded the Silver Lion for best director at this year’s Venice International Film Festival for his suspense drama “Wife of a Spy,” Kiyoshi Kurosawa could get the sort of career boost that helped make the previous Japanese recipient of the prize, Takeshi Kitano, an internationally recognized auteur. (Though Kitano got a bigger leg up for his 1997 Venice Golden Lion winner “Hana-bi” than his 2003 Silver Lion awardee “Zatoichi.”)
Kurosawa’s three-decade career has certainly been a brilliant run, but in terms of his reputation abroad, he’s long been a step behind Kitano and Hirokazu Kore-eda, winner of Cannes Palme d’Or — the festival world’s ultimate prize — for his 2018 film “Shoplifters.”
Kurosawa has arguably been more thematically and even geographically adventurous, though, venturing far from his horror-genre comfort zone to make the 2019 road movie “To the Ends of the Earth” in Uzbekistan.
Set in 1940, after Japan had invaded China and joined Nazi Germany and fascist Italy as a member of the Axis, “Wife of a Spy” is yet another departure from that zone, being Kurosawa’s first historical drama. Co-scripted by Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Tadashi Nohara, two of Kurosawa’s former students, the film is tautly directed, superbly acted and politically risky, with a story that may well position Kurosawa for a rightist bashing here at home.
In look and tone, however, “Wife of a Spy” initially impresses as the sort of lavishly produced, conventionally staged prestige drama suitable for NHK, the film’s backer and broadcaster. But its air of tension and menace is familiar from many a Kurosawa excursion into the uncanny and unknown. Not that the film ever departs from true-to-life realism; it has no need for ghosts to give us disturbing glimpses into the era’s genuine atrocities.
At its center are Yusaku and Satoko Fukuhara (Issey Takahashi and Yu Aoi), the former the urbane president of a busy trading company, and the latter his perky stay-at-home wife. They live in a big Western-style house in Kobe that to the average Japanese would have been like an exotic dream. Even Yusaku’s idea of recreation — making an amateur spy movie with Satoko and his loyal subordinate Fumio (Ryota Bando) as the stars — has a somewhat foreign tinge.
Taiji Tsumori (Masahiro Higashide), a stern military policeman who has known Satoko since childhood, warns her that Western tastes and interests are dangerous in the current political climate, but Satoko refuses to take him seriously.
Soon after, Yusaku goes to Manchuria, then a Japanese colony, on business and brings back a mysterious Japanese woman (the single-named Hyunri) and certain information the state wants to keep secret. An opponent of Japan’s militarist regime, Yusaku decides to make this information known to the outside world. At first shocked by his plan — which some would call treasonous — Satoko ends up wholeheartedly supporting him. “If you’re a spy, I’m the wife of a spy,” she says.
Takahashi, Aoi and Higashide as the three leads are all excellent, but Aoi’s performance takes the film to another level, beyond the clever plot twists expected of commercial entertainment, deep into Satoko’s mind as her well-ordered life, anchored in love and trust, descends into chaos and doubt.
But “Wife of a Spy” is more than a penetrating study of one woman’s troubled psyche; it’s also an unflinching gaze at the horror of a world gone mad. In other words, classic Kurosawa.