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Because of his groundbreaking work in horror, Kiyoshi Kurosawa has often been called the “David Cronenberg of Japan.” While it may not have the same bloody plot twists as his 1997 psychological mystery-horror, Cure, I actually think the film I’ll be discussing this week is his most terrifying work yet. This film doesn’t need a mysterious string of murders; in fact, every death in it is state-sanctioned. The horror doesn’t lie in who did the murders, but in the fact that the deaths are systemic, part of a much larger societal and political problem of fascism. My stream of the week is Kurosawa’s 2020 Silver Lion-winning historical drama-romance, Wife of a Spy.

Set in 1940, after Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy at the start of WW2, the film is centered around married couple Satoko and Yūsaku Fukahara. After discovering her husband might be betraying their government and nation, giving top-secret information to the British and Americans, Satoko must choose a side after she learns of the horrors Yūsaku uncovered while in Manchuria. It is here that the film draws from real history, specifically the human experiments conducted by the Japanese government in Unit 731, where at least 3,000 Chinese, Russian, Mongolian and Korean citizens were illegally experimented on in countless terrible ways. Even worse, the post-war American administration gave all people involved with Unit 731 immunity from prosecution in exchange for the details of their experiments, creating an injustice that lasts to this day. In fact, Japan didn’t even admit to any of this until the 80s.

There’s a lot of great things about this film that really help immerse viewers in this intense subject matter, including the score and some fantastic costuming, all of which helps accentuate the acting. Played flawlessly by Yū Aoi, Satoko’s character is the real emotional core of this film. The betrayals she undergoes, as well as the ones she dishes out, feel real and have a ton of gravity. Issey Takahashi also did such a great job as Yūsaku, rarely breaking his cool mannered double-agent veneer. The supporting roles were just as phenomenal, with Masahiro Higashide’s performance as Taiji Tsumori, a police unit leader and childhood friend of Satoko, having a range that was terrifyingly cold-hearted and amicably endearing in just the right moments.

Even though it was originally released as a TV movie, nothing about this film seems episodic or disjointed. Maybe it’s because the theatrical version has different color grading and even a new aspect ratio, but I like to think it’s mainly due to how cohesive this film is thanks to the wonderful performances by all the actors, the solid editing by Lee Hidemi and how great of a script they all got to work with (partially thanks to Kurosawa’s co-writers, one of which is Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, whose since won an Oscar for Drive My Car). The pacing is great, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats right up to the emotional crescendo of an ending. It’s one of my favorite watches this year, and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to finally get to it. Don’t make the same mistake; Wife of a Spy is now streaming on MUBI, watch it while you can!


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