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Wife of a Spy (Supai No Tsuma)

The latest creation by Japan's most versatile filmmmaker is a highly conventional and mostly confusing "spy" drama originally conceived for television - live from Venice


The 65-year-old Japanese filmmaker and screenwriter Kiyoshi Kurosawa has flirted with pretty much every conceivable genre, from romance and thriller to science fiction and horror. His latest movie is a historical drama based about two Japanese defectors during WW2. It was originally made for Japanese television, with a different aspect ratio and colour tone. And this is where it should have stayed.

Just as WW2 breaks out, local merchant Yusaku Fukuhara (Issey Takahashi) travels to Manchuria (a historical region in Northeastern China) with his nephew Fumio Takeshita (Ryôta Bandô). This is where they witness Unit 731, a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army that undertook lethal human experimentation. Yasaku collects evidence of the barbaric events, hellbent on exposing the horrors to the world. He does not see himself as a spy because he’s not working for anyone. He’s just committed to international fairness and transparency. At first, his wife Satoko (Yû Aoi) misinterprets his intentions and stands on his way. Eventually, she uncovers the truth and unequivocally sides with her spouse. Despite her initial hesitation, she will now do anything in order to make him happy.

This is not the portrayal of an empowered female, which would be a refreshing change in a society as sexist as Japan. Instead Satoko is submissive, borderline sycophantic. After all, she’s just the wife of a spy (what an awful film title). Ultimately, it’s her unflinching devotion to her husband – and not the desire for justice – that drives her forward. She comes across as frail and vulnerable, allowing her husband to make the decisions and come up with the defection plan.

The screenplay of Wife of a Spy – which was penned by Kurosawa alongside Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Tadashi Nohara – is both protracted and confusing. It took me a while to work out why the Satoko changed her mind about her husband, and where the allegiance of some of the people around Yusaku lay. Perhaps such ambiguity is intentional, I’m not sure. One way or another, it can alienate viewers. Plus the narrative lacks vigour, focusing mostly on banal dialogue. I felt mostly bored throughout the movie.

The horrific details of the Unit 731 experiments are almost entirely left out. This is a missed opportunity to portray the real-life atrocities and war crimes carried out by Imperial Japan. The remarkable fact that victim accounts were then largely ignored or dismissed in the West as communist propaganda is completely absent from the film. Instead of a creating powerful historical drama, Kurosawa opted for a half-based war thriller. The ending is particularly preposterous, with an awkwardly poetic image of a bombed town and the beach. The closing titles reveal the fate of the two characters after the War. I found this very confusing because – as far as I’m concerned and my research has revealed – Yusaku and Satoko are purely fictional characters.

Wife of a Spy is showing in Competition at the 77th Venice International Film Festival, which is taking place right now. The film the opening film at the San Sebastian Film Festival, taking place between September 18th and 26th. The film is vying for the the main prize at both events. It’s very unusual for two prestigious film festivals on the same continent to share their Competition entries.

By Victor Fraga - 09-09-2020

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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