Wife of a Spy
By Christie Robb
Wife of a Spy really tested the limits of my historical knowledge, which is lamentably focused on Western Civ. I probably studied the American Revolution five separate times and know quite a bit about the British Empire and what we erroneously call the “Age of Exploration,” but as for what was going on in Asia in the 20th century? Shoot.
My knowledge is pretty limited to some communist revolutions and America dropping bombs.
In order to get Wife of a Spy, it’s useful to understand:
- Japan invaded northeast China and Inner Mongolia in the 30s and set up a puppet state (the State/Empire of Manchuria), which they more or less controlled until the end of WWII.
- The Japanese army in Manchuria conscripted millions of people as slave laborers and subjected them to medicalized torture, including vivisection without anesthesia.
- They also spread fleas carrying the bubonic plague from low-flying airplanes over villages and cities and dropped typhoid germs into wells to test out biological weapons.
Wife of a Spy starts in 1940 as Japan becomes increasingly nationalistic. The wealthy and cosmopolitan businessman Yusaku Fukuhara faces scrutiny as to his loyalty from childhood friends who are now in the military. Yusaku and his wife Satoko (Yu Aoi) wear Western dress and conduct business with American and British citizens. They draw criticism for drinking foreign whiskey and forgoing kimonos.
On a trip to Manchuria to search for trade goods and cheap medicine, Yusaku discovers evidence of the atrocities being conducted there. He is determined to blow the whistle internationally. He says his allegiance is to “universal justice” rather than to his country.
Satoko senses her husband’s distress and growing alienation and uncovers the evidence that Yusaku has been hiding in his office safe. But is she willing to risk her blissful domestic life and creature comforts to become the wife of a spy/traitor? Or will she turn Yusaku over to the authorities?
Wife of a Spy doesn’t waste a lot of time explaining the historical context of the film (thus the exposition dump above), but it does a beautiful job of visually immersing us in the historical period. Director/co-writer Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film focuses on the ripple effect that these atrocities have on the lives of the everyman/woman.
For the most part, the reactions of the characters seem realistic. They are haunted or traumatized or incredulous. Satoko’s reaction is a little harder for me to accept. I’m with her until she makes her biggest decision. What follows seems entirely too sunny and chipper.
Regardless, the quiet menace present in the air at the beginning of the movie grows throughout and, as in any good spy film, we’re left wondering if we put our trust in the right people and if we truly understood what just happened.