Judge Adam Arseneau can't play the piano.
Every family has its secrets.
Winner of the Un Certain Regard Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival, Tokyo Sonata is director Kiyoshi Kurosawa at his most reserved and straightforward. In many ways, it is the natural evolution from Bright Future, taking the director further and further from his horror film roots, into Ozu-style social realism film about modern Japanese life.
Facts of the Case
Salaryman Ryuhei Sasaki is suddenly fired from his job. Unemployed and shamed, he hides the news from his family, but the strain of the deception slowly starts to unravel the bonds that hold his family together. His youngest son Kenji begins sneaking out to take piano lessons against the orders of his father. His oldest son Takashi wants to join the US military. His wife Megumi begins to find dissatisfaction in her role as family matriarch.
At first, it seems strange; a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film so normal and straightforward, light years away from the unconventional oddity of a decade spent in J-horror filmmaking. But for Kurosawa (no relationship to famed director Akira) his fascinations in Tokyo Sonata are no different than any of his other films. He turns the expected into the unexpected, the normal into the abnormal; a conventional salaryman with his conventional wife and children, lives suddenly upended like bugs clinging to the bottom of rocks tossed into the air, spinning frantically in the void. It might not be the traditional horror film, but Tokyo Sonata ends up surprisingly in the director's comfort zone. Modern living can be monstrous under the right circumstances.
A microcosm of modern Japanese living, Tokyo Sonata owes heavily to the social realism style of Yasujiro Ozu, depicting the declining fortunes of a hapless salaryman suddenly unemployed. Now in his mid-forties, he queues endlessly at the unemployment office, only to be offered menial or janitorial duties. He hides his misfortune from his family, but the stress and shame erode the surprisingly fragile bonds between husband and wife, father and sons. His family explodes under the strain of a depressed economy, where Japan finds itself outsourcing to China to save money, just like the rest of the world; an economy where experience and tenure count less and less in the face of a changing financial market. Ryûhei lacks the skills to adapt, and falls into the gutter. To his surprise, the free food lines are divided between the abject poor and homeless and the preened and polished salaryman alike. He is not the only one to fall on hard times.
So much of the Japanese psyche is based upon routine, on normality and expected behaviors that any cracks in the façade are ignored more often than addressed. Ryûhei and his family give the impression of normality, but the breakdown of communication and small grievances have worked their way under the skin of the family, unseen but festering. On the surface, they are a picturesque and perfect family, but this is no more real than the reality of modern Japanese working life, or the salaryman working for a corporation until retirement. Soon, Ryûhei finds himself unexpectedly tossed out of both.
The crises being addressed in Tokyo Sonata are multi-faceted; existential and social and interpersonal as a singular organic unit that cannot be easily separated. Ryûhei finds an old friend on the unemployment line that radiates success and professional satisfaction, but has been hiding his own job loss for months, perfecting the deception so well that Ryûhei cannot help but be impressed. To him, it is a better solution than coming clean with his family. Ryûhei cannot confess to his wife any more than Megumi can admit dissatisfaction in being a doting housewife, or Kenji admit his clandestine piano tutelage, or Takashi admit that he doesn't want to end up like his father. The cracks are ignored so long that the very structure of the family collapses, and here we see Kurosawa emerge, his beloved tropes bearing down on the hapless family—alienation, loneliness, anxiety, distrust of authority, despondency.
Tokyo Sonata starts with the conventional, descends into unconventional and barely restrained emotional carnage, then slowly emerges on the other side looking dazed and confused, but very much alive. Too many details about the plot would spoil things, but suffice it to say, things get very bad before they get better. And perhaps they do get better; Tokyo Sonata may be Kurosawa's most positive film to-date. Not an adjective I would have expected to use discussing the man who came up with Cure and Pulse, but I'm glad I get to use it. It feels good here, like a phoenix rising from the ash. Happiness is elusive, but a more worthwhile goal there could never be. Fans of the director's work should keep an eye out for longtime Kurosawa collaborator Koji Yakusho (Doppelganger, Cure) in the pivotal role of an unnamed robber.
Shot in Tokyo, the film portrays the normal, everyday side of the city: busy footpaths, overpasses and bridges, traffic jams, shopping malls, swarms of men and women in formal business attire walking to and from the trains. While one would never describe Kurosawa's films as visually resplendent, there is an understated style at work here; taking great care to capture the understated, the normal, the day-to-day of Tokyo living. Presented in anamorphic widescreen, the transfer is so-so. Colors lean towards subdued, but are stronger here than in some of Kurosawa's past work, which are normally in muted tones. There is a noticeable amount of PAL ghosting and aliasing at play throughout the film, but the image is clean with little grain. Black and white levels are washed out, and the image is softer than expected.
Audio fares better, with a full 5.1 Dolby Surround treatment as well as a stereo track, both in Japanese. Either one does the job, with clear dialogue throughout. The film is subtle in its soundtrack, a discordant yet melodic ambient score. There is almost no action in the rear channels save for the occasional environmental cue. Bass response is moderate, but again, not that kind of film; you could leave your subwoofer off and not notice it here.
Kurosawa is a director noted for his open and honest discourse about his films, so fans always get plenty of behind-the-scenes material for DVD releases. The main supplementary feature is a one hour "making of" featurette, your standard behind-the-scenes footage interlaced with interviews from cast and crew. We also get a twelve-minute recording of a Q&A with director Kurosawa and primary cast, fifteen minutes of footage recorded during the theatrical premiere of Tokyo Sonata, and eight minutes of discussions from cast and crew recorded specifically for the DVD.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Kurosawa turns out a surprisingly restrained and straightforward film, until the third act where instinct takes over and the weirdness kicks in. It wouldn't be a Kurosawa film unless something unexpected happened, right? In Tokyo Sonata, I find myself in the unexpected position of disliking the very element of the auteur that originally drew me to his work, the uncompromising weirdness. It becomes hard to separate the realism from the satire as order descends into chaos. The divergence serves a purpose, illustrating the fractured and broken state of their relationships, but the change of pace is too disconcerting, like a car dropping out of gear.
Straightforward and reserved, Tokyo Sonata is a delicate and poignant look into the modern Japanese life, balancing satire, heartbreak and esoteric weirdness in a way that only Kiyoshi Kurosawa can. He is a master of understatement and profundity. It may not be his best film, but it is his most mature and accessible work to to-date, and perhaps most unexpectedly, his most hopeful and optimistic.
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