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'Wife Of A Spy' Guides Viewers Into A Whirlpool Of Unexpected Treachery

Nicholas Kemp
Kino Lorber Team

Many people think World War II began when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, or even when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. But in Asia the war began in the mid-1930s when Japan attacked China and Manchuria.

Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy begins in 1940, with a fully militarized Japan. Soldiers march around the city of Kobe rooting out suspicious civilians. They pull an English trader out of the Kobe Raw Silk Inspection Center. The Englishman has a Japanese friend Yusaku Fukuhara (Issey Takehashi), and he too is questioned, later in his office, and the interrogator is an old friend who’s joined the military.

Spy movies are typically about betrayal — lying and dishonesty are basic skills for spies. Betrayals start early in Wife of a Spy. The young officer asking questions of Fukuhara right away severs their familiarities. He stands stiff in uniform in front of Fukuhara’s desk. Fukuhara is relaxed in his swivel chair. He’s westernized and he rejects the militarism of Japan. But his friend has not, and there’s the new gulf between them.

Fukuhara travels to Manchuria. He’s on business, but he’s also an amateur filmmaker. In Manchuria, Fukuhara sees the horrors Japanese soldiers are committing. He films what he sees. He also comes into possession of documents which prove that the Japanese conducted unspeakable medical experiments on Chinese people and deliberately spread diseases like the plague. These things are true.

Kurasawa films Wife of a Spy in a restrained, classical Japanese style. The camera is still; there’s a lot of symmetry in the shots, colors are muted. The film feels quiet and under control — unlike what’s developing in the story. The Japanese have been reluctant to speak of war crimes, and Wife of a Spy is the first Japanese film I know that acknowledges to the horrors the Japanese perpetrated during World War II. The Rape of Nanjing, as it’s known, was shown in all its brutality in a 2009 film called City of Life and Death, but by a Chinese director, Lu Chuan. It’s shocking for a Japanese movie to reveal this history.

It’s also shocking on the personal level. The upright and rather elegant Fukuhara takes to hiding things in an old chest in a rundown storage room. He grows furtive. The title reveals that Fukahara’s wife is important, and when he tells her what he saw in Manchuria and that he cannot tolerate injustice from fellow citizens, she’s furious.

She wonders what will happen to her reputation, to her personal things and their marriage. Questions of war or human rights don’t interest her — just the comfort and safety of her own life. She doesn’t recognize the change in their friend the officer — she still thinks he’s their pal. She also soon puts aside her anger at her husband. But the end of the movie is all about her.

It’s hard to talk about spy thrillers because it’s forbidden to give away the goods. Fukuhara and his wife Satoko, played by an exceptional Yŭ Aoi, decide they must escape their country which has become so terribly brutal. Their plan is devious and complicated, and it involves — of course — trickery and decoys and a tramp steamer.

It takes a while to see it coming, but Wife of a Spy builds to a mind-boggling conclusion. In its way, Wife of a Spy feels pleasant and familiar. But it’s like the phenomenon of a frog in a pot that is slowly being heated. The frog doesn’t notice, until suddenly the water is very hot, and the frog can’t get out. At the end of Wife of a Spy, it’s hard to believe what’s happened.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.