Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films are usually not described as “gripping, emotional family dramas”. Known primarily for his psychological horror works, Kurosawa made a splash with American J-horror fans with 1997’s Cure about a serial killer and 2001’s Pulse, a movie about spirits leaking into the world of human existence via the internet.
However, Kurosawa’s latest film, Tokyo Sonata, which he directed and co-wrote with Max Mannix (Rain Fall) and Sachiko Tanaka, is a drastic departure for the filmmaker. Tokyo Sonata centers on the Sasaki household, a middle-class family in Tokyo firmly entrenched in the stagnant routine of daily life.
When Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) is laid off from his job as an administrator due to outsourcing, he can’t face his wife and family with the news of his unemployment. Instead, he wakes up each morning, gobbles down what his wife has prepared him for breakfast, and shuffles out the door with briefcase in hand, doing his best to maintain his appearance as family head, authority figure, and primary breadwinner.
Life is equally difficult for the rest of the Sasaki family. Megumi Sasaki (Kyoko Koizumi) is a homemaker whose work is largely ignored by her family. The older son, Takashi (Yu Koyanagi), is a typical teenager with plans for his own departure from the confines of his parents’ home. Younger Kenji (Inowaki Kai) faces troubles at school, and he secretly begins piano lessons with pocketed lunch money, despite his father’s disapproval. The film shifts between the various narratives of the family, as each struggles to find happiness and solace in what has become a life of overwhelming structure and rules beyond one’s control.
At its core, Tokyo Sonata is about the pain that arises when humans cannot honestly articulate the emotions they experience. In spite of an unraveling of the “typical” family, which is usually confused and stressed, Kurosawa still manages to elicit an affirming nod and smile, as even the most subtle and mundane of acts strikes some truth of humanity.
When Ryuhei meets another unemployed business man at a free food line, he is amazed at the man’s ability to maintain the air of one still gainfully employed, going so far as to set his phone to automatically ring so he can feign he is on an important business call. These are scenes when even the most tragic events can strike one as funny, and both Kagawa and Koizumi deliver magnificent performances, radiating beams of hope and humor though all the tragedy and misfortune.
All members of the Sasaki family feel compelled to maintain appearances in the face of their unhappiness. Roles guarded by strict social codes are the source of much frustration. Kurosawa’s handling of the Sasaki family challenges viewers to think about how societal standards shape our own behavior as husbands, wives, employees, and so forth.
Aesthetically, Tokyo Sonata is nothing short of brilliant. This is a film that rewards audiences with multiple viewings. Recurring dialogue and camera shots are frequently recycled and act as a kind of coda which builds in meaning and emotional intensity as simple gestures such as saying “Welcome home” take on new meaning as situations cataclysmically worsen. Kurosawa’s style evokes the work of Yasujiro Ozu with its themes of family turmoil and cultural roles as well as its style and composition. Both rely on the importance of inferred off-screen action for dramatic effect and the detailed close-ups of artifacts of domestic life.
Like Ozu, Kurosawa’s keen eye for small details and subtle mannerisms tell perhaps the strongest story of all. Seeing Megumi, arms stretched and eyes closed, waiting for her husband to lift her up from the sofa, and his passing figure walking to the bedroom, oblivious to her state is heartbreaking; with minimal dialogue the scene speaks volumes of these people and their lives. Of course this is equally due to the phenomenal acting of the primary cast.
Tokyo Sonata‘s pacing rapidly shifts in the last movement of the film, and if I have any major criticism, it is that the Ozu-like slowness of the first hour and a half is at odds with the drastic jumps in time in the final scenes. However, the conclusion itself is absolutely wonderful as each of the characters experiences a moment of reawakening and rebirth. The sadness and loneliness we find in the human experience can also lead to periods of extreme clarity and revelation, and Tokyo Sonata manages to end on a rather uplifting note. Winner of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Tokyo Sonata is a modern masterpiece that should not be missed.
The special features on the disc include a making-of featurette, footage from the theatrical premiere, a Q & A panel with the director and cast, and DVD discussions which feature the director and cast talking about specific scenes and experiences with the project.