VIFF review: Wife of a Spy ratchets up the tension in Second World War–era Japan

Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's film brings some uncomfortable truths to the forefront

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      For decades, Japanese human-rights advocates have been trying to force the national establishment to fully acknowledge the magnitude of the country’s war crimes in the Second World War.

      Historians have documented Japan’s use of biological weapons, sexual slavery, and torture in its various wars of aggression against other Asian countries. But the Second World War soldiers who perpetrated these atrocities are still lionized as heroes by some in Japan, including former prime minister Shinzo Abe.

      Unlike the war in the European theatre, which began in 1939, the Second World War in Asia was kicked off in 1931 with Japan’s annexation of Manchuria, followed by an attack on China in 1937.

      By 1940, relations had soured between Britain and Japan, which signed the Tripartite Pact that year with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

      This is when Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s tension-packed film, Wife of a Spy, begins with the arrest of a British businessman in Kobe.

      This thriller offers up several surprising plot turns revolving around how a cosmopolitan film director, Yusaka Fukuhara (Issey Takahashi), and his devoted wife, Satoko (Yū Aoi), respond to creeping fascism and their country’s horrific conduct abroad.

      While everything seems so civilized on the surface, it’s clear that something’s not quite right when a woman’s body shows up in the water close to the shoreline.

      Aoi’s an expressive actor, able to tap into deep emotions, whereas Takahashi’s character remains cool and composed, even while under extreme pressure. The contrast between the two lead characters raises questions about their long-term compatibility just as Japanese society is on the verge of falling apart.

      Hints of love triangles only enhance the suspense.

      In Kurosawa’s world, police travel in packs and internationalists like Fukuhara constantly worry about being followed. The lighting and cinematography come together to add another sinister element.

      For history buffs, Wife of a Spy offers a captivating glimpse into Japan in the period just before its pilots rained bombs on Pearl Harbor. It’s a well-packaged film that also helps peel back the truth about war crimes that still haven’t received due attention in Japan more than 76 years after hostilities ended.

      Video: Watch the trailer for Wife of a Spy.
      Wife of a Spy will screen at the Vancouver International Film Festival, which runs from October 1 to 11; It will be available online throughout the festival and will be shown at 12:45 p.m. on October 3 at the Hollywood Theatre.