Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s new historical drama Wife of a Spy is a slow-burn, Machiavellian film that’s peculiarly hung up on appearances. From its immaculate photography to its constant probing into its character’s fashion choices and cultural tastes, it investigates the manifold meanings of the act of looking. When protagonist Satoko Fukuhara (Yu Aoi) first appears, it is as “Yuriko,” a mysterious character in a film her husband Yusaku (Issey Takahashi) is shooting. However, the man is not a professional director, and this penchant for cinema is swiftly revealed to be just a hobby. An import/export businessman in 1940s Kobe, Yusaku surrounds himself with foreign collaborators and friends, which makes the local police, led by Satoko’s childhood friend Taiji (Masahiro Higashide), question his true allegiance. After returning from a turbulent trip to occupied Manchuria, where Yusaku witnesses atrocities by the Japanese Army, Satoko begins to see her country in a different light.

From Wife of a Spy

To satisfy the requests of public broadcaster NHK, which produced the film, Kurosawa shot Wife of a Spy on an 8K digital camera. Such high-definition technology confers a crisp and occasionally stiff look, which is curious for a period film so devoted to traditional celluloid. This manifests in everything from comments about the latest Mizoguchi release to the reel Yusaku shoots in Manchuria, which he plans to use in an exposé about the abhorrent war crimes there. Homages to the silent era abound — not only through Yusaku and Satoko’s work, but also in the disturbing Manchuria footage, which brings to mind A Page of Madness, Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1926 avant-garde masterpiece about a mental asylum.

From Wife of a Spy

In the film’s first half, Satoko is merely a pawn in the game between Yusaku and Taiji, but the back half makes it clear that she is the story’s true center. As Yusaku’s film within the film foreshadows, she eventually decides to steal his evidence of the Manchurian experiments and use them to expose his treason and break free of the cocoon he’s wrapped her in. However, as with most caper stories, there is more to her scheme. Aoi’s intelligent performance gives Satoko increasing dimensionality through this metamorphosis, as instead of leaving him they grow closer together through espionage. “I’m happy,” she says when Yusaku starts to treat her as his equal, “I finally feel I’m living with you.” No longer naive or fragile, she transforms into an astute player in her own right, perhaps the only one truly capable of understanding Japan’s politics and its ruinous future.

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Wife of a Spy opens in select theaters September 17.

Ren Scateni is a writer, curator, and programmer. They mostly write about the cinema of Japan and other East Asian countries for various publications, including MUBI Notebook, Art Review, and Sight &...