“If the times have changed you, couldn’t you have changed the times?” the spy’s wife not unreasonably asks of a man she knew to be good and kind yet has done terrible things, perhaps, as has she, out of a misplaced love. Travelling from death is eternal loneliness to love is our salvation, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy (スパイの妻, Spy no Tsuma), co-scripted by Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Tadashi Nohara, picks up a thread from Before We Vanish TV companion Yocho (Foreboding) to suggest that love can in fact be as destructive as hate in its all encompassing single-mindedness as an ordinary housewife uninterested in politics is caught between her progressive, compassionate and aristocratic husband and a childhood friend with an unrequited crush who has since become an ardent militarist.
Set in Kobe in 1940, the film opens with a portly British textile merchant, Drummond, dragged from a silk inspection centre by the military police on the suspicion of being a foreign spy. This is appears not to be the case, but as in much of the narrative little is as it seems. The British merchant is a friend and associate of Yusaku Fukuhara (Issey Takahashi), the chairman of a family-owned textile company whose main objection to the idea that Drummond is a spy seems to be that a man of such copious proportions hardly fits his mental image of the word. Yusaku is nevertheless questioned by the local squad leader, Taiji (Masahiro Higashide), who happens to be a childhood friend of his wife Satoko (Yu Aoi), and later risks implication by paying Drummond’s bail. Satoko approves of this decision even if it may be politically unwise, confessing that she thought it “heartless” that Yusaku was messing about making a silent movie in which she starred as a femme fatale spy eventually killed by her lover/rival while his friend was in custody. “You’re always looking so far ahead of me, I feel like a fool” she reflects though as we’ll see she’ll soon be taking him on at his own game, the couple dancing around each other in a deadly waltz of love and betrayal.
When Yusaku declares that he’s planning to visit Manchuria, partly for adventure and partly on behalf of a doctor friend, Satoko’s main concern is his impending absence though his return brings her little peace. After a woman he and his nephew Fumio (Ryota Bando) had apparently befriended and then brought home is found dead, Satoko makes a dark discovery driven at once by jealousy in Taiji’s vague hints that Yusaku may have been romantically involved with the dead woman, and resentment in realising he is keeping something from her. That something turns out to be his intention to expose the atrocities he witnessed in Manchuria committed by doctors connected to the Kwantung Army.
Yusaku’s motives for this are rather naive, believing that it will bring the Americans into the war and hasten a Japanese defeat bringing an end to the militarist folly. Nevertheless, the discovery forces the couple into an ideological confrontation, Yusaku insisting that he is a “cosmopolitan” whose allegiance lies in “universal justice” rather to than any nation. To him happiness founded on injustice is an impossibility, while Satoko declares herself able to unsee the inconvenient truth in order to preserve the status quo reasonably pointing out that Yusaku’s “justice” will necessarily result in the deaths of thousands of innocent people. It’s at this point, however, that the tables turn, Satoko setting in motion a series of machinations which at first appear naive and counterproductive but are in fact infinitely ruthless.
“I’m not afraid of capture or death, I’m only afraid of being separated from you” Satoko insists, willing to burn the world to save her love if also later moved on “seeing” for herself the reality of Japanese abuses in Manchuria. Taking on the role she had played in their silent movie, Satoko becomes the spy revelling in her ruthlessness yet this spy game revolves around the ability to correctly read the emotional lives of others. Having been “warned” by the austere Taiji that she and her husband were too Westernised for the times with their expensive foreign whiskey and international fashions, Satoko puts on kimono in order to curry favour with him hoping to leverage his unrequited love for her. Yusaku meanwhile perhaps banks on something similar, each of them ironically manipulating the apparently conflicted militarist in the conviction that his love is pure and he will therefore continue to protect Satoko, and by extension her husband, as a means of protecting himself.
Early on, Taiji had confessed to Yusaku that he disliked arresting people which may have been a thinly veiled threat, but also bears out Satoko’s conviction that he is at heart a gentle person though we’ve not long seen him rip out one man’s fingernails in order to present them to another as a warning. Unrequited love has perhaps thrown him into the arms of militarist austerity, hardening his heart while his ardour is sublimated into a misplaced love of country that allows him to justify such heinous acts of inhumanity. “Hard choices must be made to achieve greet deeds” Satoko herself had said in order to excuse her own act of injustice in sacrificing another man on Yusaku’s behalf, only to later face the same fate in an ironic turn of events either vengeful betrayal or protective act of love depending on how you read the emotional intentions behind them.
Just as in the silent movie, incongruously scored with a poignant Japanese cover of Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein II’s Make Believe, everyone is playing a role, engaging in an act of deception if only self-directed, yet their act perhaps exposes the truth they were attempting to hide, the spy’s wife becoming the spy but beaten at her own game unable to see the entirety of the board. Commissioned as an 8K feature for a Japanese TV channel, the incongruity of the hyperreal digital photography deepens the sense of the uncanny in the unexpected naturalism of the period setting, a world of constant anxiety with soldiers on the streets and the feeling of being forever watched in the oppressive atmosphere of authoritarian militarism, while standing in strong contrast with the unreality presented by the films within the film both that made by the couple and the brief yet ironic inclusion of Sadao Yamanaka’s Priest of Darkness, another tale of infinite duplicities, given that the director had himself become a casualty of war on the Manchurian front two years previously. Ironically titled, Wife of a Spy situates itself in a state of permanent paranoia in which nothing and no-one is as it seems and love may in its own way be the most destructive force of all while containing within itself the only possible source of salvation no matter its veracity.
Wife of a Spy screens on Aug. 27 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.
International trailer (English subtitles)
Karisome no Koi (“fleeting love”) – Chiyoko Kobayashi (1936)