Many will know Kiyoshi Kurosawa from his international famed horror narratives Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001), but since that period Kurosawa has slowly blossomed into a kind of genre chameleon. Besides creating horrors, like Creepy (2016), he also made straight-up dramas like Penance (2012), a sci-fi romance Before We Vanish (2017), and a suspense thriller Seventh Code (2013). And now, with Wife of a Spy (2020), Kurosawa adds a historical romantic drama to this list. This narrative, furthermore, reunites Yu Aoi and , who impressed audiences with their performance in Romance Doll (2020).
Kobe. One day, Yusaku Fukuhara (Issey Takahashi) is approached by Taiji (Masahiro Higashide), an old friend and now the Kobe squad’s leader, concerning his client John Fitzgerald Drummond, a British raw silk merchant who was arrested supposedly for leaking military secrets earlier that day. Taiji warns him and urges him to choose his friends carefully – or, in less vague words, to stop dealing with foreigners. Yusaku refuses because his trading business and income depend on dealing with foreigners.
One day, Satoko (Yu Aoi) is summoned by Taiji to his office where she is interrogated about Hiroko Kusakabe, a woman who was recently murdered. Taiji reveals that Hiroko came back to Japan from Manchuria together with her husband and that her nephew-in-law, Fumio Tachibana (Ryota Bando), is currently one of the suspects. At home, at the dinner table, Satoko confronts her husband but he, after admitting that he knows Kusakabe, urges her to not ask any further. Yet, some time later, Satoko succeeds in forcing her husband to confess the ugly truth he discovered on his trip to Manchuria (History-note 1).
Wife of a Spy – and this should be clear – is not a thriller in the strict sense, but a psychological romantic drama – the emphasis in Kurosawa’s narrative does not lie on signifier “spy” but on the signifier “wife”. The main narrative thread is, in fact, rather simple and can be summarized with the following question: how does Satoko, who loves her husband very much, deal with his secret? Yet, aside from this simplicity, Wife of a Spy does boast a pleasing thematical depth, a depth that reveals itself by reading the periphery of Kurosawa’s narrative.
Before investigating the subjective position of Yusaku and Satoko, we want to explore the two important societal dynamics that mark Kurosawa’s narrative. The first dynamic we will call the dynamic of militarized paranoia – a paranoia that does not only deem foreigners (except for Italians and Germans) a threat, but also those who might betray the fascist order.
It is important to understand that the threat or the threat that structures the ‘fascistization’ of society is, first and foremost, a phantasmatic one. Yet, as Wife of A Spy so eloquently evokes, the phantasmatic threat that drives the fascist societal functioning eventually produces real threats to its system.
One of the first consequences of this militarized paranoia, as based on a phantasmatic threat, is the installation of a monitoring apparatus or, in more poetic words, the erection of the oppressive eye of the fascist Other. The military order to look for suspicious individuals and inspect their baggage is one of the elements that signal, within the societal space, the presence of such paranoiac eye. This order is, beyond signaling the presence of the eye to the common other, also instrumental in strengthening the sense of paranoia among the military as such – the military other is, in fact, ordered (or, in other words, given the right) to mistrust others and look for visual signs of foreign Otherness. The visual presence of the military on the streets, furthermore, displays the presence of a threat for the common other and seemingly gives this highly phantasmatic paranoiac believe an indirect foundation within societal reality. A second consequence of this paranoia concerns the use of violent torture to ‘force’ confessions, to force others to confess they are, even when they are not, a threat to the fascist system.
The second dynamic or truth is introduced via the subjective position of Taiji. What his position shows is not that supposedly pure Japanese identity is already irreparably perverted by the west (and its products), but that the discourse concerning the truth of the quintessentially Japanese identity/essence is newly constructed and fictional. The nostalgic return to the past to ground the newly constructed national identity is, in truth, nothing other than an attempt to give a mythological support to the fascistic dynamic of indoctrination and subordination. With his repeated warnings, Taiji does not only evoke that this fascistic dynamic has already structured his identity, but also that he, by finding a solid ground for his identity in this mythological fiction, has become the spokesman of the Japanese imperial regime (Narra-note 1).
Having explored the two dynamics that Kurosawa so eloquently evokes, we can now turn to Yusaku and Satoko’s subjective position. Yusaku can be described as fully westernized at the visual level. This is evident from the way he clothes himself, the exterior as well as the interior of his house, and the nature of his business and so on. But Yusaku’s westernized position becomes most evident when he, after receiving a gift of top silk from a friend, orders his wife to make western clothes with the silk, an order that constitutes a refusal to heed the National Uniform Edict. One should understand Yusaku’s western performance as an act of subtle provocation, a way to express his defiance to the fascist Other. With the ugly truth he discovers in Manchuria, Yusaku does not only find a way to consolidate his defiance, but also a chance to instigate the destruction of the oppressive Fascist Japanese Other.
Satoko, while dressing herself in a western style, is divided between her husband’s western lifestyle – i.e. his refusal of traditional Japan, and the need she experiences to inscribe herself into the traditionalistic prescriptions of the fascistic Other and to avoid challenging this Other (Narra-note 2). This subjective conflict is driven by a fear, a fear to lose her husband, her happiness. The anxiety dream that Satoko has about her husband’s infidelity – her husband performs his infidelity in front of her – is, as one rightly suspects, also function of her fear. This dream furthermore reveals that it is especially this fear that dictates her actions (e.g. meeting Fumio to find out the truth, … etc.) (Psycho-note 1, Psycho-note 2 (spoiler)).
The composition of Wife of A Spy – a pleasant mix of static, slow spatial moving and tracking moments – is a straightforward affair. The composition does what it needs to do, i.e. frame the story, but one cannot say that the way Kurosawa has composed his narrative elevates his exploration of Satoko and Yusaku’s relationship.
One cinematographical element that needs to be mentioned is the lightning design. The lightning design of Wife Of A Spy stands out due to its naturalism and its washed-out colour-palette (Lightning-note 1). Even though this approach to lightning and colour gives the narrative a certain foreboding atmosphere – an atmosphere that evokes the looming threat of the paranoiac Fascist Japanese Other our subjects are (already) subjected to, it also causes many scenes to be characterized by a play of vague shadows with little to no subdued highlights. Kurosawa’s visual choice will divide spectators. Some might feel that the lightning-design gives the film, at times, a tv production aesthetic while others will experience this murky darkness as a visual symbol for the dark and ethically murky times under Japanese fascism – the play of power happens, par excellence, within the shadows.
Kurosawa delivers a beautiful evocative finale that will long linger in the mind of many spectators. Nevertheless, due to the evocative nature of the finale, some spectators might contend that Kurosawa’s finale lacks in power or fails to provide a certain closure. Yet, in our opinion, the power of the finale resides in its evocative/poetic nature. Whether the spectator feels the evocative power of the finale or not depends on his ability to read Satoko’s subjective position correctly. Luckily, due to Yu Aoi’s pitch-perfect performance, a mesmerizing layered and emotionally nuanced performance, realizing and feeling that her comportment is driven by her romantic fixation on her husband is not that difficult.
Wife of a Spy is a tremendous achievement. Yet, it is not so much necessarily due to its framing of the changing relation between Satoko and Yusaku, but due to the way this relation is contextualized, how, in the periphery of the narrative, Kurosawa calls forth certain (indigestible) truths concerning the Japanese imperialistic Other. That Wife of a Spy succeeds in lingering in the spectator’s mind is, besides being function of the ugly truths it exposes, also function of Yu Aoi brings the romantic fixation that marks her character masterly to life.
Narra-note 1: Some spectators might find it illogical when Taiji warns Satoko about drinking foreign Whiskey and that she should drink domestic whiskey instead. Yet, this element shows that, in the preceding Mejii and first fourteen years of the Showa period, it was not only Japanese society that became westernized but also ‘western culture’ (e.g. whiskey), by being introduced into Japanese society, that underwent a process of Japanification. In the case of whiskey, one could contend it became part of the cultural repertoire.
The point of Taiji’s warning is that Satoko and her husband should not display/show off their “westernization” too much. Such display might be experienced as an open act of defiance to the Japanese Nationalistic order.
Narra-note 2: The need that Satoko feels to avoid challenging the fascistic Other reveals itself when she implies to her husband that keeping in touch with Drummond might not be wise.
Psycho-note 1: Some might wonder why Satoko confronts her husband with the infidelity of her dream upon hearing the truth he discovered in Manchuria. In our view, Satoko uses this fantasized infidelity to frame her husband’s behaviour because it provides her with ready-made meaning that allows her to avoid the horrifying truth that puts her social position, her happiness, in perpetual danger.
Yet, despite her defensive retort, she is driven to know the truth she does not want to know/accept. Ultimately, be being confronted with visual proof for her husband’s story, she cannot but accept the horrifying truth.
The only thing that Satoko feels she can do, after being forced to accept this truth, is to try to safeguard her husband and her happiness. Yet, this time, Satoko wants to utilize the horrifying truth to ensure her future happiness with her husband – “You have to trust me. I’m the only one you have left”; “Let’s go to America. The two of us.”.
Psycho-note 2: One could read the cause of Satoko’s final transformation in two different ways: either it is caused by a radical destruction of her infatuation with Yusaku or by a radical affirmation by Yusaku of his love for her. Either way, both ways of understanding rely on the element of betrayal. (In our understanding, Kurosawa strongly favours the first way of understanding).
History-note 1: The ugly truth concerns the true purpose of the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification department of the Kwantung Army or, in short, unit 731 led by Shiro Ishii. In short, Unit 731 was a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit. They freely experimented on people (criminals, political prisoners, homeless, and mentally handicapped, … etc.) with various diseases which ultimately led to the creation of the defoliation bacilli bomb and plague-infected fleas to be aerially sprayed over cities. Around 1940, Ningbo and Changde were sprayed, creating a bubonic plague that killed tens of thousands of people.
Lightning-note 1: One will without a doubt notice that the light from windows in interiors (Yusaku’s firm, the tram, … etc.) is always of a burned-out kind. This choice could have been function of the fact that many of these scenes were shot within a studio.