REVIEW: Wife of a Spy (2021)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest directorial venture, Wife of a Spy, is a romantic period piece set in Japan during World War II. It is centered around Satoko Fukuhara (Yū Aoi), who begins to suspect that her husband Yūsaku Fukuhara (Issey Takahashi), might be a spy for the United States. And while the struggle with that doubt shapes Yūsaku and Satoko’s journeys, the question “What is this movie trying to say?” will probably define your viewing experience.
Period pieces serve a wide variety of purposes. But if they are simplified and boiled down to, let’s say, three, then they are: reminiscing about a bygone era, telling a cautionary tale, and showing off as many examples of great production design and costume design because awards season is right around the corner. Wife of a Spy kind of does all three of them. However, it only truly shines when it is trying to tell us, the modern day audience, that please don’t let this happen again because fascism is not good. And the main reason for that is probably because autocracy, largely led by the far-right, is on the rise and people are more polarised now than ever before.
To illustrate this very point, writers Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, Tadashi Nohara, and Kurosawa put Yūsaku and Fumio (Ryōta Bandō), and Taiji Tsumori (Masahiro Higashide), on either ends of the patriotism spectrum, with Satoko in the middle, serving as the audience surrogate. On one hand, Yūsaku and Fumio’s eyes are opened to the atrocities happening in and around Japan post their business trip to Manchuria. On the other hand, Taiji is covered from head to toe in government propaganda due to the nature of his job as the recently-promoted leader of the Japanese Military police. Which one of them is the better alternative? Of course, Yūsaku and Fumio’s because it dares to question the organisations that are oppressing their own people. But that doesn’t mean it’s not difficult to witness Taiji’s devolution through Satoko’s eyes. Because, you see, they are childhood friends.
Satoko is essentially a beacon of empathy. She tries her best to ensure that Japan is saved but not at the cost of her husband and her friend. That said, it eventually becomes apparent that empathy doesn’t really mean anything to fascists or those who support them. Something, on a very fundamental level, simply changes beyond recognition. Then it doesn’t matter if you have spent ages with each other together playing games, going on hikes, and daydreaming. All that matters is the need to preserve this regressive image of one’s country. Self-awareness, love, friendship is replaced with traditionalism, misogyny, and plain bitterness. And in the case of Wife of a Spy, since this shift is portrayed so subtly and yet effectively by Kurosawa, Aoi, and Higashide that it genuinely injects a sense of fear that what are we going to do if this happens to us? Will we side with our friend or defect?
Well, that brings us to the “reminiscing” part of this period piece. The general consensus is that the old-school versions of chivalry, bravery or masculinity were idealistic and inspirational in the past, and that they have been diluted post the 20th century. Wife of a Spy runs with that idea, while trying not to be sexist about it. Kurosawa presents Yusaku as the emblem of nationalism who is ready to go to any lengths and spew all kinds of lies to show Japan’s true nature to the rest of the world. After some initial doubt, Satoko realises that she has not really known her husband all this time and she can remedy that by not just revolting against Taiji, but also by matching up to Yusaku’s bravery. It seems like a plain old love story on the surface or the rekindling of the spark in a middling marriage. But upon careful examination, it becomes evident that through Satoko and Yusaku’s journey, Kurosawa is saying that it’s not enough to romanticise the deeds of our previous generations. We must actively emulate it as well.
Sadly though, all this messaging is overshadowed by the movie’s pacing and this need to revel in the attention to detail. There are moments that benefit from the slow pace as it allows you to absorb the borderline melancholic nature of the story. So, kudos to editor Lee Hidemi for that. But sometimes, it seems like the movie keeps going over the same old plot points with a severe lack of urgency, as if it is afraid that the audience wouldn’t get it the first time. The stakes are iterated verbally and then reiterated visually. However, since cinematographer Tetsunosuke Sasaki does a splendid job of capturing the filming style of the 1940s, maybe the verbal references could’ve been left on the cutting room floor. And while there’s no doubt about the fact that the production designers and costume designers have done a lot of period accurate work here, unless it benefits the story in any way, there’s no point in lingering on them. The urge to not do that is understandable. However, if you want to send a message about the horrors of fascism instead of just showing pretty visuals, you have to make a few tough decisions.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy has its heart in the right place. Despite taking a page out of the forties, it reflects the times that we are living in right now. And it asks us to make a choice that will go on to define the next few generations and do so quickly, because dictators benefit from self doubt and fear. It boasts of some excellent filmmaking and performances. But it runs the danger of not leaving a lasting impression in the audience’s mind, due to its repetitive storytelling and lack of restraint when it comes to putting its messaging before the visuals.
Wife of a Spy opens in NYC at the IFC Center on September 17, 2021.