Tokyo Sonata ****
Directed By: Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
Written By: Kiyoshi Kurosawa & Max Mannix & Sachiko Tanaka.
Starring: Teruyuki Kagawa (Ryûhei Sasaki), Kyôko Koizumi (Megumi Sasaki), Yû Koyanagi (Takashi Sasaki), Inowaki Kai (Kenji Sasaki), Haruka Igawa (Miss Kaneko), Kanji Tsuda (Kurosu), Kôji Yakusho (The Robber), Kazuya Kojima (Mr. Kobayashi).
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is mainly known for his horror films. He has made great examples of Japanese horror like Cure, Pulse, Charisma and Séance – some of which have been ruined by American remakes, and some are still waiting to be ruined. So in a way, his latest and best film, Tokyo Sonata, is a departure for him as it is not a horror movie in the traditional sense of the word. And yet, there is certainly a degree of mounting dread, and a certain amount of terror and uncertainty in the film. It couldn’t possibly be a more timely film, as it deals with the effects of the economic downtown in a global economy. And yet, Tokyo Sonata resonates for more reasons than that.
Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) was the director of administration for a large Japanese firm, until they realized they could cut costs by two-thirds simply by outsourcing this function to China, and he is let go. Humiliated at being a middle aged business man now unemployed, he doesn’t tell his wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) about his firing, but instead heads off to “work” every morning. He tries going to employment agencies and to other job interviews, but is dealt one humiliation after another. The employment agency says he has zero chance at getting a job at the rate of his last one, and in interviews they want him to demonstrate his skills right in front of them during the interview. How do you demonstrate that you’re good at administration work? Simple, he doesn’t.
So he spends most of his time in libraries and in large concrete squares where they give out free food. He is surrounded by other men in his situation, as well as the homeless – the line between them getting thinner and thinner by the day. He meets a friend from school, Kurosu (Kanji Tsuda), who is in the same boat and has been for months. He offers advice on how best to fool his wife, but not on how to get another job. Eventually, Kurosu takes the easy way out. But Ryuhei cannot do that. When he finally lands another job, it is as a janitor at a shopping mall – the happy employed people going about their business all around him as if he isn’t even there.
But the fact that Ryuhei loses his job doesn’t cause the problems in his family – they just bring them to the forefront. The other three members of the family are all dealing with their own problems, and cannot share them with the other members of the family. Megumi goes about her routine as the dutiful housewife, but now that one child is over 18, and the other about to enter high school, she really doesn’t have anything to do, and is getting bored. When she discovers that Ryuhei is out of work, why doesn’t she offer to get a job? Because that’s not what she does.
Their oldest son, Takashi (Yû Koyanagi), is now out of school and sees no prospects for him in the modern Japan. When the law changes, and allows Japanese citizens to join the American army, he jumps at the opportunity. Their younger son Kenji (Inowaki Kai), accidentally starts a “revolution” in his class, and instantly regrets it. He wants to take piano lessons, but his father refuses to allow him. He does so anyway, stealing his own lunch money to pay for them. This is a family who hasn’t communicated with each other in years.
For two thirds of its running time, Kurosawa’s film plays like an updated version of an Ozu film – using the family as a microcosm through which we can view all of Japanese society – in this case one that is crumbling all around them, and heading uneasily off into a modern, globalized world. But just when we think we know where Tokyo Sonata is going, Kurosawa throws one curveball after another at us – a robbery turned hostage taking, an envelope full of money that is found, and people chasing children through their neighborhoods. For some, this is when Kurosawa loses his way in this film. But I find the last act absolutely necessary to the fabric of the movie. It wakes the characters up out of their daze, and moves them off into the future. The future is not bright (a reference to another Kurosawa film), but it’s there in front of them – and for the first time it appears that this family maybe willing to face it with their eyes wide open.