Though he will always be primarily known for horror staples Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001), Kiyoshi Kurosawa has established himself as a versatile director. This made for TV, but slightly spruced up for theatrical release, affair serves as further evidence. Wife of a Spy is an overtly traditional period piece that plays with the tropes and sensibilities of Japanese cinema of the forties in order to evoke that period. In doing so, the film serves as an ode to an era of films and a compelling drama in its own right. And, while it falls prey to being overtly safe – a stately and handsome work but not an impactful one – it still tells a worthwhile story with pleasing style.
This work overtly harkens back to the films of Mizoguchi (a director who is specifically mentioned at one point in the film) and beyond. Its focus on relationship drama, centred on a female perspective – and knowing flirtations with melodrama – connect it with these classics, and with the work of Mikio Naruse. This is all very purposeful, as our central character is a filmmaker of the time period, which links back to a satisfying theme about the importance and responsibility of filmmakers. What is especially interesting about the film is that it uses the language of classic Japanese cinema in order to comment on aspects, and content, that the industry – for myriad reasons – avoided. This is an overtly critical look at Japan during the ’40s, specifically its imperialistic cruelty, that presents those trying to fight against this – through espionage – as heroic figures. Interestingly, espionage itself is shied away from. The title is purposefully romanticised, harkening back again to films of the period, and points to the film’s deployment of classical tropes. We have a spy, their wife and a Japanese military officer, a childhood friend of the former characters who is still attracted to the eponymous wife. This traditional structure is the backbone of the film, and relationship drama is its focus.
Our supposed spy does not seem himself as a spy, just as a person doing what he must do. It is a powerful message for the audience and, again, positions the film in a cinematic mode. This is a story of everyday heroism that employs expected tropes to imbue the narrative with a sense of romance. The look of the film also brings it back to the period. The limitations of TV filmmaking leave the filmmakers with a few locations and having to use blinding light through windows as a way of not having to create a large, period appropriate setting. This limitation becomes a purpose, though, and an extension of the style. We have a film in our film, a wonderful approximation of classic cinema, and while Wife of a Spy does not take on the aesthetic as a whole, this in-fiction film does provide a reference point. Its locations are our locations and the compellingly tropey tale of the film is used as a smart narrative echo, and is effectively deployed in the wider film’s best moment. Towards the end, the film indulges adventure cliché, pushing its narrative towards known tropes of espionage cinema, indulging the viewer before revealing that things were not quite as they seemed. This is paired with a screening of the in-fiction film, itself dealing with betrayal, a seemingly similar relationship and familiar tropes. This really is the film at its best, as the overriding sense of homage becomes a message itself.
This being said, though it makes the most of its limitations, the film’s approach does lessen its impact. Everything is very handsome and stately, exhibiting a classical style, but it all feels rather safe. The gloss and formality establish the film as a period picture but this knowing evocation of genre expectations works against it. The narrative the film gleans out of the past is an important one, an atypical one for its style, but the style makes it feel traditional and inconsequential. This is an interesting way of normalising an atypicality that should be typical but it makes the film feel unnecessarily fictive. The visual language is the language of comfort, a separated past that exists in a fictional mode. This has no contemporary bite and the classical gloss, and wider romanticism, rob the story of its potential political impact. We are left with an endearing relationship drama that touches on aspects you would not expect, but the overall approach dilutes those aspects. It is an interesting comparison to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata (2008), maybe his best film, in which he employs horror conventions in a domestic drama. The narrative of that work is stereotypically distinct from the expression but his expression heightens it, making it a uniquely powerful experience. Here, the traditional and stereotypical approach is a slight disappointment.
Wife of a Spy is a pleasant film; a charming film. Its traditional sheen is aesthetically satisfying, and it uses this in some intelligent ways. The camera is smartly aligned with the female perspective, while still recognising her lack of agency (as referenced to by the title), and linking it again to the work of Naruse. But it lacks the bite of its inspirations, in spite of its political framing. Yes, the film is positioned in an interesting way but, within this framework, it unfurls a traditional tale. It is a powerful way of normalising its perspective, and the overall sense of homage makes for a film that is merely comfy – a great weekend evening watch with a cup of tea. There are moments of real excellence, a few sequences where it all comes together and the approach feels additive as opposed to a restriction. These moments are not the norm, though, leaving the viewer with a pleasant, but lightweight, experience that could be so much more.