Wife of a Spy: Only Forever, by David Bax
Before I get started here, I want to preemptively clarify that Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy is not a movie about moviemaking. It feints in that direction early on, as we see Satoko (Yū Aoi), the wife of the title, acting in an amateur suspense film, pretending to crack a safe. That scene got me thinking about two of the major types of movies about moviemaking. First, there’s the self-aggrandizing sort, usually either a fluffed-up retelling of real events or something pretending to be a satire in order to further perpetuate the industry’s delusions of grandeur. Then there are the better ones, those that are actually fascinated with the implications of recording something false and then attempting to use it to present someone’s version of a grander truth. In many ways, actually, spy movies have a lot in common with movies about moviemaking. The spies themselves are both like actors, telling stories and trying to be convincingly someone they’re not, or they’re like the audience, looking closely to separate the real from the manufactured. That’s what Wife of a Spy is, a tale of a woman trying to find out if she’s being manipulated and then trying to decide if the manipulation is preferable to the truth.
Another thing common to spy movies is fantastic costumes. Wife of a Spy delivers there, too, and even makes them integral to the piece. Satoko’s husband, Yūsaku (Issey Takahashi), runs an import/export firm in Kobe, Japan in 1940 and is not shy about his affection for his foreign business colleagues’ customs and clothing. He and Satoko wear Western suits and dresses (not to mention shoes inside their home) that are as luxurious and alluring as they are suspicious in the eyes of their countrymen, who are increasingly wary of any potential British or American agents and sympathizers.
Even Satoko starts to suspect her husband. It’s here that Wife of a Spy begins to better resemble a domestic melodrama than an espionage thriller. Satoko’s angst has less to do with the possibility that Yūsaku is committing treason than it does with her worry that his secrets are the by-product of a faltering marriage. Surprisingly, the change in genre actually improves the film.
Bridging the gap between the film’s two dominant modes is the inspired score by funk-rocker Ryosuke Nagaoka. Cellos groan lowly, harmonizing with the wind outside. The effect is suspense-inducing but also mournful, eulogizing the end of a years-long romance.
If Satoko is to save her marriage, she must make an unenviable choice. On the surface, Wife of a Spy is about loyalty. Will she be faithful to her country or her husband? But Kurosawa looks deeper, arguing that the purest act of love is not loyalty but trust. Even if it damns you.