WIFE OF A SPY – Review by Diane Carson

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Wife of a Spy dramatizes 1940 Japanese intrigue

For virtually every country, war crimes may be overlooked, ignored, or even denied. Hats off, then, to courageous films, nonfiction or scripted, that acknowledge egregious historical transgressions, and, even more rare, to find a way to incorporate admission in a dramatically compelling work. This is exactly what Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa achieves in Wife of a Spy.

Set in 1940 Kobe (Osaka Bay, central Japan), the story immediately establishes the repressive nationalist milieu as soldiers raid the Kobe Raw Silk Inspection Center to arrest British merchant John Fitzgerald Drummond for leaking military secrets. Military officer Taiji pays a visit to businessman Fukuhara Yusaku, who calls Drummond his client and friend. Officer Taiji, a childhood friend of Yusaku’s wife Satoko, criticizes their Western ways: house furnishings, clothes, and even whiskey. With nephew Fumio, Yusaku visits Japanese-occupied Manchuria from which he returns with the woman Hiroko, later found dead, and 16-millimeter film shot at the Kwantung Army research lab. It reveals secret, barbaric experiments on human subjects. Yusaku intends to use it as evidence to impeach Japan and force the U.S. into war.

The film thus launches a cloak-and-dagger tale of suspicion, betrayal, bravery, and suspense. Co-writer/director Kurosawa states that the war provides the backdrop for the actual subject: “acts of ruthless violence Japan has committed on foreign soil.” He refers to the real-life, historical massacres, forced labor, starvation, and medical experimentation that killed, in total, millions, and never fully owned up to by Japan. In press notes, Kurosawa added, “I wanted to tell the story of those who kept their sanity amid all the chaos, exemplified by the couple in the film.”

Technically, every element contributes to a truly powerful, intense, and building impact, from the art direction to the cinematography, both perfectly interpreting the historical period. The editing complements the superb performances, letting interaction unfold with subdued anxiety by the expressed verbally and nonverbally by the characters. Wife of a Spy won the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival. In Japanese with English subtitles.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.