Tokyo Sonata (2008): Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Dark Family Tale

Japanese Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is not a household name in the U.S., but he is a prominent figure internationally based on his accomplished body of work, especially in the horror genre. With “Tokyo Sonata,” which world-premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Fest, Kurosawa brings his dark sensibility to a deceptively simple, real-world story about a contemporary family.

With roots in low-budget popular fare, Kurosawa is a master of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. In his breakthrough picture, “Cure” (1997), a murder mystery is transformed into a tense, complex psychological puzzle. Like many of his films, it also includes an indictment of modern society as a system that fails to meet the needs of humanity.

After “Cure,” Kurosawa had successes with the sequel “Charisma” in 2000 and, most recently, in 2006’s “Retribution,” all falling within the parameters of the horror genre. His latest film represents a bold departure, demonstrating the versatility of his personal approach to the medium.

“Tokyo Sonata” is at frighteningly topical, introducing Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa), the middle-aged, middle class, middle management protagonist, just as he loses his comfortable corporate job. Shocked and dejected, Ryuhei returns home where his wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) and sons Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) and Kenji (Kai Inowaki) seem oblivious to the life-changing misfortune.

A proud man, Ryuhei decides to put off breaking the news, leaving the house early the next morning only to realize he has no place to go. After encountering an old friend, who is also among the growing ranks of the unemployed, Ryuhei learns how to collect free meals, kill time in libraries and public parks, and keep up appearances in front of his family. This includes deceiving his wife and submitting to a series of humiliating experiences in his desperate search for a job before his money inevitably runs out.

Meanwhile, his family continues to function as if there is nothing happening beyond the typical household dramas. The eldest son, Takashi, channels his adolescent rebellion into his decision to enlist in the American military, a choice that worries his mother in times of war. Kenji, the precocious younger son, is at the point in his life where fun and games in the classroom are losing their appeal in favor of real decisions about what to do when he grows up. He knows that his wish to play the piano is a pursuit his father will reject as frivolous and effeminate. Kenji thus begins taking lessons in secret, using his lunch money to pay for a tutor who soon sees him as a rare talent.

With his unemployment a festering secret, Ryuhei grows increasingly frustrated; he becomes a distant husband and irritable father. A violent outburst when he learns about Kenji’s piano lessons leaves no doubt about what danger his situation poses for his family but does little to offer outlet for his frustration. Ryuhei emerges as both victim and antagonist, finally settling for work as a janitor in a shopping mall. His shame reaches a crescendo when he accidentally crosses paths with his wife and has no recourse but to run away as she stares on in disbelief.

At this point, the text halts and integrates a flashback that retraces the previous three hours, during which Megumi is kidnapped in her home by a comically inept burglar and released at the mall. It’s a rare awkward moment, as the film slips into ellipsis in time, but the confusion is only temporary. Realizing the truth of her husband’s situation, Megumi returns to the burglar and willingly spends the night with him in his hideout. Ryuhei and Kenji don’t make out much better–each attempts to run away only to be forcibly dragged back into reality. Having hit rock bottom, the family reconvenes for breakfast at home the next morning, each member unaware of what the others have been through. A beautifully bittersweet closing suggests there is hope for this family but one that’s tinged with uncertainty.

In bringing such a rich mixture of fear, tragedy, humor, and warmth to “Tokyo Sonata”, Kurosawa is once again finding the real meaning of a story beneath its surface. Here the horror is entirely situated within the characters and their modern world, which makes it all the more terrifying when it shows through. In starting with a scenario rooted in plausibility, he discloses his self-avowed admiration for films of the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s, which rely more heavily on a new kind of realism.

Like other Japanese filmmakers employing minimalist standards or inconspicuous visual style, Kurosawa draws generalized comparisons to Ozu and Asian sensibility rooted in long takes and static shots. But he owes more to his American predecessors (and his education at the Sundance Institute in the 1990s) whose films opened themselves to new levels of inclusion and social commentary.

“Tokyo Sonata” announces Kurosawa’s triumphant crossover while speaking to anyone whose own anxiety about their world is not easily placated.