This article appeared in the September 16 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Wife of a Spy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2021)

This unpredictable and engrossing World War II tale embeds an exposé of Japan’s infamous bio-weapons program in the drama of a civilian couple’s dueling loyalties. Cult horror director Kyoshi Kurosawa demonstrates an unexpected mastery of suggestion and restraint as he supplies (in James Agee’s words) four essentials of good historical moviemaking: “visual, aural, and psychological authenticity, and the paralyzing electric energy of the present tense.”

Kurosawa whizzes through the thriller setup, then complicates it with uncertainties and ambiguities true to its time—1940—and place—the port city of Kobe. A proudly cosmopolitan import-export man (Issey Takahashi) ignites the suspicions of Kobe’s military police chief (Masahiro Higashide), a childhood friend of his guileless wife (Yū Aoi). The husband has shared his anti-militarist convictions with his nephew (Riyatō Bandō) but not his apolitical spouse, so she’s stunned when her erstwhile pal investigates both men as potential spies. Kurosawa navigates startling intersections of domestic tenderness and ruthlessness while depicting the marriage of a girlish woman to a sophisticated trader who prefers Western tailoring and whiskey to Japan’s. What makes this period movie rare is the wife’s refusal to become collateral damage to anyone else’s strategies. She conducts her own unsentimental education and, using the power of surprise, becomes a savvy operator herself.

The wife also stars in her husband’s amateur movies: his latest, a romantic thriller, enables Kurosawa to weave a playful thread into his movie’s skein of betrayals and reversals. The film-within-a-film ironically employs Jerome Kern’s love song “Make Believe” (from Show Boat), and Yū Aoi persuasively embodies a woman who goes from make-believe to real-life cloak and dagger—and who stays devoted to a husband who tests her at every turn. She’s the emotional pilot light to the film’s slow-burning suspense.