Tokyo Sonata (Regent Releasing, PG-13)

tokyo-sonata_sm.jpgFor the first hour or so, Tokyo Sonata seems to be a conventional family melodrama…then things take a turn for the surreal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Kiyoshi Kurosawa made his reputation directing J-Horror movies like Séance (1999), Pulse (2000) and Bright Future (2002), so at first glance the domestic drama Tokyo Sonata would seem to be a radical change in direction. But don’t be fooled by appearances: Tokyo Sonata is no Ozu remake, and Kurosawa finds plenty of horror lurking just beneath the placid surfaces of seemingly ordinary life.

The story (from a screenplay by Kurosawa, Max Mannix and Sachiko Tanaka) starts out as an ordinary family melodrama. Salaryman Ryuhei Susaki (Teruyiki Kagawa) is fired from his job due to outsourcing but conceals this fact from his family, leaving the house at the usual time every day, clad in his blue suit and clutching his briefcase. It’s not the loss of money which is his immediate concern, but the rupture of the social contract which he thought was in place: Do your job well and subscribe to the company values, and the company will always have a place for you.

Ryuhei is unprepared for the brave new world of outsourcing and competitive interviews. He has no idea how to sell himself to a new employer, but is so desperate for work that when a hiring manager orders him to sing karaoke, he does. But it’s all for nothing and he finally ends up working as a cleaner in a shopping mall, wearing a red jumpsuit and scrubbing toilets on his hands and knees.

Things are no better at home. The eldest son Takashi (Yû Koyanagi) sees no future in Japan and wants to join the American army (Kurosawa uses a fictional premise which is not all that far-fetched, which is that the American military is accepting volunteers from other countries, including Japan). The younger son Kenji (Inowaki Kai) is rebellious in school and wants to take piano lessons. Ryuhei uselessly tries to prohibit both the enlistment and the lessons, for no obvious reason other than the need to assert his authority. Meanwhile Ryuhei’s wife Megami (Kyoko Koizumi) takes the traditional role of mother and housekeeper and tries to hold the family together, with very little assistance or appreciation from the others.

For the first hour or so, Tokyo Sonata seems to be a conventional family melodrama, well done and made current by references to outsourcing (Ryuhei’s division is relocating to China where labor is cheaper) and escalating war in the Middle East. Then things take a turn for the surreal and, while you may wonder for awhile whether Kurosawa can pull it all together, he eventually does in an emotionally satisfying conclusion which forgoes dialogue in favor of music, in this case Debussy’s Clair de lune.

As with Kurosawa’s horror movies, Tokyo Sonata lends itself to allegorical interpretation. If that’s your pleasure, then Ryuhei is Japan itself, granting no one any quarter as he clings to old patterns which no longer work and refuses to really look at the world and people around him. Megami represents the best of the old values: She’s the strongest character in the film, completely devoted to her family and infinitely resourceful, the proverbial reed which may bend but will never break. Kenji is the younger generation, not afraid to speak the truth to authority and sure enough of himself to pursue music studies (in which he is very talented) against his father’s desires. The miracle is that these conflicting threads are able to become convincingly reconciled, thus allowing the film to end on a hopeful note.

There are many pleasures in Tokyo Sonata, beginning with the acting. All the leads are excellent, but Kyoko Koizumi is particularly good as she finds the depths in what could have been a superficial and clichéd role. Kurosawa’s relaxed pacing and lack of concern for explaining every last thing will be a welcome relief if you’ve wearied of blockbusters; he trusts his audience enough to let them figure things out and allows every moment to unfold in its own time. His cinematic style, which favors a still camera and medium to long shots, allows meaning to evolve from the film rather than being pushed on the viewer. Cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa has a fine eye for the backside of Tokyo: Most of the story takes place neither the gleaming glass towers nor the slums, but in slightly shabby urban expanses of rust and concrete. | Sarah Boslaugh

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