‘Wife of a Spy’: What Is Loyalty During War? ⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎

How one understand director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Wife of a Spy” (スパイの妻, Supai no tsuma) depends largely on your knowledge of culture and history. The hair of the titular character is one of the clues you might miss, but the topic of Japanese hair is close to my heart (or head).

Growing up I was told I had my maternal grandmother’s hair. She always wore it under a light fishnet which saved the expense on product although she might have used some. Her hair was wavy and because it was short, the stubborn curls were more readily evident, even in the relative low humidity of the desert areas of California where her house had been, a farmhouse surrounded by fields of tomatoes and cucumbers.

Away from my maternal relatives, my hair was the source of constant consternation as White hairdressers rarely knew how to cut wavy East Asian hair and, when I moved away and even when I was in Japan, East Asian hairdressers often wanted to commit me to hairstyles that required endless blowdrying and product to make my hair as straight as possible.

There was a time during my first stay in Japan when I was with my maternal second cousins and we rejoiced that we were born post-Meiji. Our wavy hair was more acceptable, but still in conservative areas, students sometimes had to prove that their hair was a perm made in heaven. That convo was decades ago, but in 2021, the debate continues, even in cosmopolitan Tokyo

Mary Pickford.

In “Wife of a Spy,” the audience first sees the wife as a “modern girl” (モダンガール,modan gāru). The modern girl or moga was a woman who completely embraced Westernization. Instead of kimonos, they wore short dresses (for the 1920s) and Western style shoes. For hair, think Mary Pickford or Clara Bow. Moga focused on themselves and consumerism, selfish choices in a highly group-conscious society. Yet with the rise of nationalism in Japan, the moga fad went into a decline as the sacrifices of imperialism favored the previous Confusian ideal of “good wife, wise mother” (良妻賢母yōsai kenboChinese賢妻良母/賢母良妻;  xián qī liáng mù/xián mù liáng qī).  

Clara Bow.

The film actually begins in 1940 with the Japanese military police arresting a British raw silk merchant, John Fitzgerald Drummond (David Ridges), in Kobe with Fumio serving as an interpreter. Drummond, is a friend of Yūsaku Fukuhara 福原優作 (Issey Takahashi) and his wife Satoko Fukuhara 福原聡子 (Yū Aoi ). Soon after Drummond’s arrest, Yūsaku is visited by a childhood friend of his wife,Taiji Tsumori 津森泰治(Masahiro Higashide). Taiji has been promoted to the leader of the local unit and he warns Yūsaku that his preference for Western-style suits, his dealing with imported good and his friendships with foreigners has brought him under surveillance of the local military authorities under the National Mobilization Law. Yūsaku replies, “If I close my business, my wife will be homeless.” Yet Taiji also confides that despite being a military policeman, he doesn’t really like arresting people. 

What follows next is the introduction of Satoko who is shown as a glamorous moga, opening up a safe, but this segment also introduces the theme of deception. Satoko is just acting in an amateur film. Her co-star is her nephew, Fumio Takeshita (Ryōta Bandō). Yūsaku screens it for a few people and he’ll later screen it for others. Satoko thinks him quite cold and heartless making a film while his friend is imprisoned. 

Drummond visits, having been failed out by Yūsaku, and  informs the couple that he’s leaving for Shanghai where he’ll be safer as he can no longer do business in Japan. We see that Yūsaku and his wife have really embraced the Western lifestyle. Not only do they have beds instead of futons and tatami rooms, they have a lovely hearth and fireplace, something I have never seen in a Japanese home. Yet the exoticism of the Fukuhara home might be lost on a North American audience. The subtitles slightly obscured this but I wondered if Yūsaku is wearing shoes in the house instead of slippers. In traditional homes in Japan and other places in East Asia, shoes are taken off. 

Yūsaku owns an import-export business in Kōbe-shi 神戸市, the third largest port city of Japan after Yokohama (near Tōkyō) and Fukuoka (Kyūshū). His parents and Fumio’s grandparents live in Yokohama. We never see them, but when Yūsaku and Fumio leave for Manchuria, ostensibly to buy things cheaply, including medicine at the request of Dr. Nozaki (Takashi Sasano), Satoko is shown writing to them. During Yūsaku and Fumio’s one-month absence, Satoko meets Taiji on the trail she’s hiking with a female companion. She invites him to her house but nothing untoward happens.

When Yūsaku and Fumio return, things have changed and Taiji informs her that Yūsaku was traveling with a woman. We actually see her, Hiroko Kusakabe (Hyunri), with Fumio when Yūsaku is hugging Satoko as she greets up upon his return. Hiroko and Fumio slip by, but the contrast between Hiroko and Satoko seems to show Yūsaku is torn between tradition and modernization. Hiroko has short hair, but it is straight and she wears a kimono under a haori.

Soon after his return, Yūsaku screens his film for his company as part of their end of the year celebration (bōnenkai). As sound isn’t easily introduced to amateur films, his film is set to a song played on a record player:

This may be a fleeting love,

but it still gives me joy

In this bleak world

We ride the boat of our dreams

But soon sinks deep 

Below waves of daylight

I can’t help 

But shed a cascade of tears

Such fleeting love

You and I, just a momentary couple

Make believe that our hearts are calm

But burning like a fire deep inside

Planting a phantom kiss in the real world

My whole body is overwhelmed with sadness

This painful love is a one-way road

This is 15 Showa and gifts are part of the bōnenkai tradition. His workers receive rice cakes (traditional food for New Year’s Day) and sugar–things that are being rationed during this wartime economy.

Fumio announces that he will leave the company to write a novel about what he witnessed on the mainland in hopes of leaving a record before he’s drafted. He even tells them where he’ll be staying: Tachibana Inn in Arima. 

The Arima Onsen (有馬温泉, Arima Onsen) is near the mountain range known as Mount Rokkō (六甲山, Rokkō-san) in the northern part of Kōbe. The grand Fukuhara home which is near Rokkō, something that Yūsaku mentions to Taiji at the beginning. 

As they clean up after the party, Yūsaku mentions that the beginning of trade restrictions between the US and Japan have made him want to visit the US one more time. When he was twenty, he visited San Francisco and Los Angeles as a sailor.   

It’s in Arima, that things take a mysterious turn. A woman’s body is found floating off a pier. Hiroko Kusakabe was on staff at the Tachibana Inn and it’s her body that turns up. This is a homicide. Taiji brings in Satoko for questioning and tells her that her husband Yūsaku knew Hiroko. Satoko begins to suspect that her husband has taken a lover, but then who killed her and how is Fumio involved? How is Drummond involved? And why does Satoko suddenly decide to appear in a kimono when visiting Taiji? All intriguing questions, but, this is a Japanese film, so don’t expect to get concrete answers. 

What’s in a Name?

I’m always interested in how names can be used to evoke feeling and images in Japanese. Tachibana (橘氏) can refer to a clan of court nobles who were prominent in the Nara and Heian periods. It also can be the name of a daimyō clan ((立花氏) who rose to prominence during the Muromachi period. Tachibana was also the name of a type of Japanese warship during World War II (橘型駆逐艦, Tachibana-gata kuchikukan), of which 14 were completed (out of an originally plan of over 100).  Tachibana () is also the name of a ship in the Imperial Japanese Navy that was completed in 1945, but sunk in July with the loss of 135 crew members. 

Tachibana is also the name of a Mandarin orange native to Japan. Oranges as associated with good luck on New Year’s Day. 

Fukuhara 福原 means fortunate field.   You’ll often see the character for fuku 福used for good luck,  particularly in relation to the New Year.

The wife’s name, Satoko 聡子, uses the character for sato(i) 聡(い)which means wise or having a quick memory. 

The husband’s name, Yūsaku 優作, means excellent work. The first character is also used for the word yasashii 優しい meaning kind or easy-going. It is also used for the word actor, haiyū 俳優。

The nephew’s surname, Takeshita Fumio 竹下文雄, means under bamboo. Bamboo is also associated with New Year’s Day in the form of a traditional decoration called kadomatsu (門松, “gate pine”). The first character of the given name is related to writing, literature and notes. The second character of the given name 雄 means hero or male.

The main antagonist, Tsumori Taiji, has a last name that means harbor forest 津森. The first character, 津, is also part of the word tsunami, 津波。Tai means calm.  Ji also means peace but is associated with government. Taiji can mean to subdue or get rid of (退治する) or to confront (対峙する).

During the film, Yūsaku and Satoko are watching a newsreel and after the newsreel ends, we see the beginning credits for the 1936 jidaigeki film “Priest of Darkness” (Kōchiyama Sōshun河内山宗俊by director Sadao Yamanaka. Kōchiyama was a real person who died in 1823. He was the servant in Edo Castle, but he lost his job working for the Tokugawa shogunate and was eventually arrested. He died in prison, but there’s no record of a verdict against him so he’s been portrayed as both a scoundrel committing crimes as well as a champion for people oppressed by the powerful. 

The film “Priest of Darkness” is by Sadao Yamanaka (山中 貞雄, November 1909 –  17 September 1938) who directed 26 films between 1932-1938. Only three of his films survive. He died of dysentery while serving in the Imperial Japanese Army in Manchuria. 


Besides understanding the moga, one has to consider imperialism and oil embargoes and the medical ethics of the time preceding, during and post-World War II.

The industrial revolution was originally fueled by steam and water although oil became important in lighting, but with the development of internal combustion engines (in Germany), that changed. Ships that had been fueled by coal which required the back-breaking work of loading and was dirty, and limiting (due to space requirements) were replaced by ones using petroleum oil. Britain and Germany both had natural coal deposits, but oil was another matter. The now oil dependent British Navy secured supply through the Royal Dutch Shell Group (which began by developing an oilfield in North Sumatra in 1890 (Indonesia) and expanded to include Russia and Romania) and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. This was the beginning of the British Oil Empire  and the struggle over Iraqi oil

In modern times, consider how oil strikes and oil embargo have effected national policies and resulted in war. Although during World War II, Persia (now Iran) was neutral, there was a joint invasion of the Imperial State of Iran by the British and Soviet Union forces in August 1941. This is what forced the abdication of Reza Shah who was replaced by his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Anglo-Soviet Invasion was to insure the the safety of Allied supply lines of oil to the USSR, secure the oil fields in Iran against German influence and to prevent a possible German-Italian advance into Turkey via Iran.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, 35 nations led by the United States went to war but at the center was oil pricing and production disputes.  Oil is important in the modern world and island nations like the United Kingdom need to find a source. 

For this reason, the mention of the American oil embargo is important. In Japan, it was known as the ABCD encirclement (ABCD包囲陣, Ēbīshīdī hōijin), meaning America, Britain, China and the Dutch.   It presages Japan’s counter strike against its World War I ally, but remember that Japan has left World War I disgruntled when US President Woodrow Wilson made it clear that democracy didn’t apply to Japan when he rejected Japan’s Racial Equality Proposal. While there were 11 votes for the proposal (Japan, 2; France, 2; Italy, 2; Brazil, 1; China, 1; Greece, 1; Serbia, 1; Czechoslovakia, 1), the British Empire did not register a vote (2 votes) nor did the US (also 2 votes). Portugal and Romania had one vote each and did not register a vote. Belgium was absent.  The UK which had been Japan’s closest ally was strongly against the proposal and Japan had entered the war at the request of the UK. 

By the time of the embargo (July of 1941), Japan had already invaded China in 1937, starting the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). (Nazi Germany invaded Austria in 1938 and Poland in 1939.) The embargo ended the export of raw materials such as iron ore, steel and oil to Japan, threatening a collapse of the Japanese economy. Imported oil made up as much as 80 percent of the domestic consumption. 

Japan needs to get oil from somewhere but also prevent China from getting fuel. The Invasion of French Indochina (September of 1940) is meant to prevent China from importing arms and fuel. France had already been invaded by Germany in May and by June was under German occupation. There was both occupied France under Philippe Pétain and Free France formed in London and led by Charles de Gaulle.  In a news reel that Yūsaku and Satoko watch, the narrator says, “Our giant fleet for the important mission of peace in French Indochina, showed its magnificence at Cap Saint-Jacques at nine.” This was part of the “Asia for the Asians” campaign by Japan (different yet disturbing similar to Xi Jinping’s “Asia for Asians” mantra). Cap Saint-Jacques is now known as Vung Tau, Vietnam and currently has a role in the crude oil industry. Taking what is now Vietnam was necessary before Imperial Japan invaded the Dutch East Indies (1941-1942) where oil. At the time, the Dutch East Indies was the fourth largest exporter of oil behind the US, Iran and Romania. Germany had already invaded and taken over the Netherlands, but the Dutch government in exile joined the US-led oil embargo. The occupation of Indonesia by Japan for three and a half years is helped end the Dutch colonial rule. (Some of the Japanese soldiers who deserted assisted in the Indonesian National Revolution.)  

The other point that is at the center of the film’s moral motivations is biological experimentation. In modern times, we consider the Japanese and the Nazi experiments horrific, but were these acts historic anomalies? At the Nuremberg Trials, medical experiments in the US were used as a defense, specifically those at Statesville, Illinois prison. The malaria experiments at Statesville were not unique. Prisoners in San Quentin Prison were subjected to experiments by Dr. Leo Stanley from 1913-1951. 

Medical experiments and biological warfare by the US military went beyond the infected blankets given to Native Americans in the 1860s. The test subjects were sometimes US troops in order to “test the efficacy of gas masks and protective clothing” during World War I.

According to the University of Michigan Heritage Project, during World War II, “In the United States of the 1940s, it was still standard practice to test new drugs on institutionalized patients without their consent.”  The venerated Jonas Salk oversaw the University of Michigan Commission on Influenza vaccine test on 8,000 psychiatric patients in two hospitals. The project indicates that part of the motivation was the war and the possibility of soldiers dying from influenza. 

Race sometimes made the patients vulnerable, as in the United States Public Health Service (PHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Tuskegee Study on Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (1932-1972) and in some of the experiments around atomic testing, but race wasn’t always a determining point that made the subject vulnerable to what we now view as unethical acts of medical experimentation. Whole cities were sometimes part of military experiments such as the 1950 spraying of serratis marcescens over San Francisco.

The reach of unethical medical tests wasn’t limited to the US. In the 1940s, The Johns Hopkins University, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co BMY.N and the Rockefeller Foundation were involved in US government experiments that infected hundreds of Guatemalans with syphilis and for which, these institutions recently faced a lawsuit. The test subjects included soldiers, prostitutes, prisoners, patients in a mental health facility and children in state-runs schools and orphanages. 

For the film, “Wife of a Spy,” the Japanese audience is more likely than North American audiences to know that the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army (関東軍防疫給水部本部, Kantōgun Bōeki Kyūsuibu Honbu), more infamously known as Unit 731 in the US, were not prosecuted if they came under the US controlled areas. Those arrested by the Soviets were tried for war crimes in 1949. The US military gave immunity in return for the data collected from the human experimentation. This grant of immunity included the leader Lieutenant General Shirō Ishii. 

Did racism play a role in this decision because the victims of the experimentation were predominately non-White? That’s something that must be considered since institutionalized racism was prevalent in the US as well as other Allied nations and had been one of the problems that led to the war in the Pacific. At Nuremberg, the people behind the medical experiments did go on trial.

The film “Wife of a Spy” is a complex look at Japan on the brink of change at a time when medical ethics worldwide would soon be called into question but not necessarily truly and honestly dealt with in a manner that was respectful to all of humanity. There is definitely some disturbing footage, both of implied torture in the film and from what looks like archival footage portraying the unethical medical experiments by Japan in Manchuria. 

The ending is enigmatic, but there’s that haunting lyric: “This painful love is a one-way road.” Asian American know that a journey to the US isn’t going to be wine and roses in a post-war world where people of Japanese descent were returning from internment camps and Chinese American were about to feel the chill of the Cold War. There’s a saying in Japanese: Sode no hide wa onna no mi or to wipe one’s tears away with one’s sleeves a thousand times is a woman’s lot in life. 

“Wife of a Spy” was broadcast on NHK 6 June 2020 and had a theatrical release had its world premiere at the 77th Venice International Film Festival where it won the Silver Lion Award. 

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