“Wife of a Spy” is a debatable title on two fronts. The man in question may or may not be a spy, and while the female protagonist is certainly his wife, that passive, possessive phrasing undersells the degree to which she commands Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s thoroughly involving, old-school slice of wartime cloak and dagger. Powered by Yu Aoi’s bravura performance as a glamorous Kobe starlet thrown into uncertain moral and marital torment by her husband’s covert operations at the outset of the Second World War, the film is a relatively unfamiliar fit for its prolific helmer, given its sharply evoked period milieu and restrained, classical storytelling. He wears it well: After a slowish start, “Wife of a Spy” unmasks itself as one of his most purely enjoyable, internationally accessible entertainments.
Kurosawa’s latest may be his first period piece, but if its tone and outlook feel additionally fresh for him — even given the genre spectrum he’s covered in his four-decade career — his co-writers may have something to do with that. Recently celebrated Japanese writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi (“Happy Hour,” “Asako I & II”) and his writing partner Tadashi Nohara (both former film school students of the veteran helmer) have contributed the film’s fine, knotty original screenplay, and their previous collaborations’ delicate, probing interest in the female condition is in welcome evidence here. “Wife of a Spy” derives a measure of its suspense not from standard-issue espionage and derring-do, but from its heroine’s increasing understanding of the limited extent to which the men around her credit her intelligence, ability and independence.
At the outset, admittedly, it’s easy to see why people might underestimate Satoko (Aoi) as the prettily accommodating trophy wife of Yusaku (Issey Takahashi), a wealthy merchant in Kobe wary of encroaching authoritarian influence in the country. The year is 1940, and Japan has joined the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy: Satoko, however, is more preoccupied with her not-quite-professional acting career, shooting a modest melodrama that amounts to little more than a vanity project for her. (Seen multiple times in the course of events with shifting narrative impact, the film-within-a-film looks a silvery treat in soft, flickering monochrome — in stark contrast to the hyper-clean digital style of the main proceedings.)
While Yusaku journeys to Manchuria on an apparent business trip, Satoko is repeatedly visited by Taiji (Masahiro Higashide), a childhood pal turned rigidly rule-bound military policeman. His friendly overtures don’t conceal a certain robotically reproving tone to his counsel — not least when he warns Satako about the inappropriateness of her and Yusaku’s predilection for Western clothes and whiskey. When Yusaku returns from his mysteriously extended Manchuria trip, somewhat cagey about what he’s been up to, Satoko is distressed to hear from Taiji that her husband brought another woman back to Japan, who was found dead in short order.
The truth, inevitably, requires selective assembly from more than one source. This is a chewy, compulsive yarn of interleaved revelations and deceptions, told in crisp, straightforward fashion — though Kurosawa is often less concerned with chess-maneuvering his plot points than he is with calmly observing the creases and changes in Aoi’s open, ingenuous face as various ugly truths (or otherwise) sink in.
“Wife of a Spy” quickens and brightens in tune with her character and ever-more-expressive performance, though the first 20 minutes or so of this two-hour film are on the stiff side, stressing the dainty, well-heeled decorum of Satako and Yusaku’s married life to a fault. It’s quite a journey from these prim beginnings to an exhilarating, high-impact third act that finds her once-cosseted world literally on fire. If Aoi’s zero-to-11 tour-de-force is the film’s driving motor, meanwhile, Takahashi’s drily suave turn as her husband — who might be neither what he says he is, nor entirely what she thinks he is — gives it a regular, ticking pulse of tension.
Eschewing the deep charcoal shadows and blades of chiaroscuro you might expect in this genre terrain, Kurosawa and cinematographer Tatsunosuke Sasaki instead opt for daylight pastel-noir palette of creams, caramels and the military’s deceptively mild minty green — dulling and darkening and finally blazing as Satako delves further past her life’s genteel facade. That works well enough, though the decision to shoot on abrasively crisp 8K digital (converted to 2K for screening purposes) may prove divisive. It certainly strips any nostalgic gloss off the material as if with acetone, though the aesthetic effect can turn from strikingly spartan to overly severe, with harsh dandelions of blown-out light bursting through windows.
At the very least, it allows the viewer to appreciate every last fiber of Haruki Koketsu’s superb costume design, which finds conflict of its own in the contrasting silhouettes of traditional Japanese clothing, the chic, nippy tailoring of the central couple’s Hollywood-inspired wardrobe, and the more threatening pleats, notches and mirror-shine leather of the authorities. In this story of appearances shattered and exploited, every outfit is a front of some sort.
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