It’s 1940 in Kobe, Japan, and daily life has the vague uneasiness one feels when your country is on the brink of war. Yusaku (Issey Takahashi) is a merchant by day and amateur filmmaker by night, crafting a film noir starring his wife Satoko (Yû Aoi) and nephew Fumio (Ryota Bando). When the military police get a little too close and detain one of Yusaku’s British customers on suspicion of being a spy, Yusaku and Fumio head to Manchuria to see it while they can before war inevitably breaks out. While there, they make a shocking discovery, and secretly return to Japan with a beautiful, mysterious woman in tow. While they’re gone, Satoko reconnects with Yasuharu (Masahiro Higashide), a childhood friend (with an unrequited crush) who is now a high-level officer in the military police, and who tries to protect Satoko by revealing that her husband may be a spy. Should Satoko trust her husband, or her old friend? And who will she pick if forced to choose between her husband and her country?
Included on Kino Lorber’s new Blu-Ray release of the film is a fascinating “making of” featurette, clocking in at a hefty 53 minutes. Students of the filmmaking process will learn much by watching master director Kiyoshi Kurosawa at work. We get to see as he works with the cinematographer, lighting, and other production crew, walking through complex shots with an auteur’s vision and explaining his choices and their reasoning in ways that make them sound intuitive but deceptively simple. He’s just as studied when it comes to his actor’s performances, with careful consideration taken to blocking and line delivery. In a brief interview, he discusses an interesting preference he has for moviemaking: he prefers to start filming his movies with scenes deep into their second half to push his actors to discover their characters sooner and settle into a groove faster. We see him coach his stars through their early scenes, with particular stress given to Aoi and Takahashi.
The success of this technique is evident in the resulting film. Aoi takes Satoko through a marked transformation through the course of the film, spending much of the early going as the happy-go-lucky, oblivious housewife until the rug is pulled out from under her as she suspects her husband is guilty of infidelity, treason, or both. Kurosawa has a particular goal with Takahashi’s Yusaku, which is that his motivation and allegiance mostly remains a question mark. Kurosawa is not at all interested in handholding, and prefers to let the viewer consider the evidence and come to their own conclusions. Takahashi meets him right there with an intense, charismatic performance whose mysteries keep you on your toes.
The film is set in the 1940s, and Kurosawa frequently takes his cues from old Hollywood. Many of the scenes have the look and feel of films of that era, with rapid-fire dialogue and characters facing away from each other as they literally talk past each other. Kurosawa tends to like his takes long, lingering on his actors’ faces to illustrate their internal turmoil or lingering over his sets to emphasize the setting before the action starts. This may sound like it’d drag the movie out, but it actually draws you in, and makes the just-under-two-hour runtime fly by.
Wife of a Spy is just a well-made movie plain and simple, with a good mystery, a heavy ethical conundrum for its characters (and its viewers!) to consider, performances that are intense without getting showy or overly melodramatic, and gorgeous period settings captured in stunning 8K. Movies this carefully considered and impeccably constructed don’t come around nearly often enough, making Wife of a Spy one that is definitely worth your time. | Jason Green
Wife of a Spy is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, and is also available for digital streaming through Kino Now. The film is in Japanese (with some English) with optional English subtitles, and extra on the disc includes a making of feature (mentioned above) and the film’s trailer.