One probably doesn’t have espionage on the mind when making marriage vows for in sickness and in health. The wife of a spy, however, doesn’t really know the man she marries if he lives a double life. Wife of a Spy, directed by horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa, fashions a simmering spy game alike with its tale of a woman caught in the web of her husband’s affairs. The film, which won Kurosawa the Silver Lion for Best Director at Venice last year, marks a notable departure for the director behind genre hits like Pulse. Make no mistake, though: Wife of a Spy is the work of an artist rooted in good horror. This dark and atmospheric film oozes Hitchcockian suspense.
The slow burn spy game is part Notorious and part Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with its measured mystery. Satoko (Yû Aoi) becomes torn between her devotion to her husband, Yasaku (Issey Takahashi), and a childhood friend who provides a disconcerting tip about Yasaku’s true profession. Yasaku, see, moonlights as filmmaker. There is ample drama as the film-within-the-film echoes the betrayal that Satoko encounters.
Noir from Afar
The façade of Yasaku’s film career immediately lends itself to noir-ish intrigue. The 1940s timeline sets the tone perfectly for the cinematic language popularized by Hollywood movies of the era. Just as filmmakers like Billy Wilder and John Huston navigated the Production Code to thrill audiences, Satoko must interpret and decode the hidden messages of Yasaku’s double life. This is an old-school thriller for audiences who like movies that take their time while unfolding riddles.
As with many Hitchcock thrillers, however, Wife of a Spy is ludicrously convoluted. Satoko’s investigation into Yasaku’s affairs involves murder, war, and some sort of biological plague. Something may be lost in the translation of the talky script. However, Kurosawa’s striking visual language says more than words can. Noir, after all, frequently relies on what goes unsaid between the words. It’s about interpreting visual cues and cracking codes.
Unlike the dark shadows of Hollywood noirs, though, Kurosawa saturates The Wife of a Spy in bright light. Curtains bathed in soft light evoke a bride’s veil. Every frame underscores the charade of Satoko’s marriage. The images offer a sense of false innocence and false security. The tragedy of the film is seeing the young woman stay cozy in the security blanket of her marriage until it’s too late.