Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Wife of a Spy is exclusively showing on MUBI in many countries.
Late in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy, a gripping espionage thriller set in Kobe on the eve of World War II, the film’s titular heroine Satoko Fukuhara (Yu Aoi) and her well-to-do merchant husband Yusaku (Issey Takahashi)—whose clandestine activities have aroused the suspicion of the Kempeitai, Japan’s feared military police—go on an outing to a local cinema, as if to evade their surveillance and to keep up a veneer of normalcy. There, at the downtown movie house, the couple catches a screening of Sadao Yamanaka’s historical drama, Kochiyama Soshun (1936).
This minor, seemingly inconsequential detail in Kurosawa’s latest conceals a hidden subtext that hints at the ominous shadow of a grinding military campaign Japan was engaged in at the time in China. Yamanaka, a tragic cult figure who left behind just three surviving films in the course of his all-too-brief career, was drafted in 1937 and subsequently shipped off to the Chinese front as an infantry corporal, where, as fate would have it, he perished aged 28 in Manchuria—a puppet state Japan had set up in the resource-rich region of northeastern China.
Revered today as a great poet of socially conscious humanist cinema, whose untimely demise has elicited comparison with Jean Vigo, Yamanaka is perhaps best remembered today for his evocative portrayal of a downtrodden quarter of ancient Edo, Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937), his last outing as a director. According to film historian Noël Burch, Yamanaka’s conscription to the frontline, so the story goes, was a form of “reprisal” brought about as a result of “his left-wing convictions” by an increasingly repressive Japanese regime. In his seminal 1979 book on Japanese cinema, To the Distant Observer, Burch wrote that Yamanaka’s death represents “the heroic martyrdom of a tiny minority of politically conscious democrats.”
That Kurosawa should make an allusion to Yamanaka in Wife of a Spy is a fitting anecdote to a film that revolves around a conspiracy hatched by such conscientious “democrats” of wartime Japan. In it, the husband and wife team of ordinary bourgeois citizens, alarmed by their country’s headlong tilt toward authoritarianism, concoct a risky and daring scheme to expose the “devilish acts” being perpetuated in Manchuria by the Imperial Japanese Army, which Yusaku becomes an eyewitness to while on a business trip to Japanese-occupied China. As the film gathers pace, Yusaku enlists the aid of his reluctant wife Satoko in his effort to publicly sound the alarm about his gruesome findings of biological warfare carried out against Chinese civilians, with the aim of drawing international criticism and sabotaging Japan’s reckless march toward war with America.
Not unlike Hitchcock’s scathing examination of marriage in his masterpiece of a World War II espionage noir Notorious (1946), much of Wife of a Spy’s carefully wrought riveting suspense—skillfully crafted by Kurosawa with customary flair—hinges on the evolving dynamic of the central marital relationship. Yusaku, a self-styled “cosmopolitan” who may or may not be an actual spy operating under the cover of his trading company, initially keeps dark about his cloak-and-dagger double life from Satoko. Her husband’s secrecy prompts her to not only cast doubt on his fidelity, but also come to suspect him of the ultimate betrayal of colluding with the enemy and turning his back on his country, before she commits herself to become his accomplice out of marital love.
Though disguised as an old-fashioned spy movie, there is more to Kurosawa’s film than meets the eye. While it is true that the film’s thrills emanate in part from the Fukuharas’ attempts to conceal their covert activities from the prying eyes of the villainous Kempeitai officer, Taiji (Masahiro Higashide), Wife of a Spy is a film that, in much the same way as Hitchcock’s classic, uses the espionage genre as a pretext to interrogate the notions of duplicity and loyalty in the context of marriage. (In this sense, it is probably no coincidence that Satoko first appears in the film in the guise of a femme fatale while performing a scene for the amateur caper movie that Yusaku makes.)
The subject of matrimony, of course, is the recurring motif that has preoccupied Kurosawa at least since 2015’s Journey to the Shore. In that road movie with an uncanny twist, a grieving young widow is abruptly visited by the ghost of her deceased husband, who takes her on an itinerant sojourn across eastern Japan that doubles as a second honeymoon of sorts, while Before We Vanish (2017) unexpectedly combines the alien invasion formula with the conventions of the comedy of remarriage to startling effect.
Even by the standard of the genre-hopping nature of this ferociously prolific filmmaker, Kurosawa’s latest—his tenth feature in as many years—marks a discernible change of direction. Indeed, Wife of a Spy ticks many “firsts” for Kurosawa. Not only is it the director’s first foray into period-piece filmmaking, but more importantly, it is also his first to be shot in his native city of Kobe.
Pivoting away from the chaos and anonymity of present-day Tokyo that provided the indelible backdrop to such films as Pulse (2001), Bright Future (2003), and Tokyo Sonata (2008), Kurosawa here sets out to paint a historical picture of his hometown by paying homage to its unique heritage as a cosmopolitan port city of transnational commerce. Working in tandem with his co-screenwriters Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Tadashi Nohara (a pair of rising auteurs renowned for their own Kobe-set sagas, Happy Hour  and Third Time Lucky , respectively), Kurosawa reimagines Kobe circa 1940 as an enclave that strikes as Occidental as it is Oriental, one that is susceptible to foreign influences due to its status as an open port city. A setting that, therefore, is ideally suited to situate a web of transcontinental anti-fascist intrigue.
In fact, for his first period film, Kurosawa seems to go out of his way to eschew traditional Japanese spaces, in stark contrast to typical Japanese fare that deals with life on the home front. Instead, Kurosawa populates his narrative with a cabal of stylishly attired would-be spies in an array of distinctively noirish settings that take a page out of the classical Hollywood trope: See, for example, Yusaku’s open office with Venetian blinds, the menacing interrogation room of the military police, not to mention the scene by the pier where the lifeless body of a murder victim washes up.
It is plain to see that Kurosawa is invoking the generic idiom of American spy thrillers of the 1940s vintage, along the lines of Robert Zemeckis’ recent attempt to revive the genre with Allied (2016)—a largely overlooked film that Kurosawa, a consummate cinephile, named as his choice for the best film of the 2010s for a Cahiers du cinéma poll.
And nowhere are these influences more evident than in the film’s central mystery pertaining to Japan’s state secrets covertly captured on a Pathé film reel that Yusaku smuggles out of Manchuria, which he claims could shock the world. A quintessential MacGuffin object straight out of the film noir playbook, it sets in motion a series of marital deceptions that culminate in the final bravura plot twist. This climactic revelation should go unmentioned here for the fear of spoiler—except to say that it unfolds memorably to the tune of “Karisome no koi,” a retro number by the popular prewar songstress Chiyoko Kobayashi, who sings lugubriously of “transient love.” It is a theme goes hand in hand with Kurosawa’s latest inquiry into a marriage in flux.