Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tokyo Sonata

In Japan, the sudden loss of position and income carries with it a degree of shame and embarrassment far beyond what we might expect to feel in the west under similar circumstances. In Tokyo Sonata, unemployment and the effects of a changing economic environment are crucial story catalysts that indirectly trigger a breakdown of the common fa├žade of familial contented unity.

During the opening minutes of Tokyo Sonata, Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) loses his job when he's unable to answer the question: "what can you offer this company?" Crippled with shame, he decides not to tell his wife, Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), and dutifully leaves the house each morning, looking for another job, lining up for free soup with the homeless and hanging out all day. He runs into old pal Kurosu (Kanji Tsuda) who also has been downsized and has already mastered the art of looking employed. Similarly, dislocated unemployed workers populate the parks of the city, suggesting that their affliction extends to all of Japanese society. With great wit, Kiyoshi Kurosawa shows how Ryuhei and Kurosu find that, for a while, their bogus lives are rather pleasant: they’re still the wage-earning lords of their domestic kingdoms but don’t actually have to bother to work. In a bizarre way, pretending to have a job is actually not that different from having a job since the rituals of leaving for work, coming home from work and generally imposing your family authority can easily be maintained, and for longer than you think.

Initially, there's little evidence of disharmony present in the family's earliest interactions, with only the oldest son's, Takashi (Yu Koyanagi), repeated absence from the meal table prompting a hint of irritation on his father's part. The dutiful family meals are little performances of the absurd, full of hypocrisy and the discord only grows stronger as the film continues. Ryuhei's unemployment serves as a trigger for the development and exposure of secrets harbored by all four family members. In a very funny scene, younger son Kenji (Kai Inowaki) gets caught passing a manga book in the classroom, stages a minor rebellion and exposes the teacher's own penchant for reading erotic manga on the train. Subsequently, he starts taking secret piano lessons against his father's wishes. Takashi, meanwhile, wants to take advantage of a new ruling that allows Japanese citizens to join the American military. Most long-standing is Megumi's buried unhappiness, feeling invisible in her own household and sharing her family's latent feelings of loneliness and inadequacy.

Although not a genre piece in the vein Kurosawa's earlier superb urban horror thrillers (Cure and Pulse), Tokyo Sonata recaptures the sense of dislocation and loneliness that were key to their unsettling effectiveness. The Japanese society it portrays is not one of harmonious unity, but of individuals who feel isolated even in the company of others and who appear to have lost the ability to communicate effectively on a personal level.

Kurosawa's economy of storytelling and attention to detail ensure that not a single scene passes without expanding our understanding of the characters and their situation. The underlying anxieties that fester throughout the first half of Tokyo Sonata manifest themselves in the second, through a series of subtly exaggerated encounters that see the family placed in one improbable scenario after another, challenging and mocking their continued decorum. Kurosawa's past as a director of horror movies pays the greatest dividends as their lives threaten to unravel. He creates a pervasive sense of unease even as he sets up the film's frequent comic moments, which often come at the expense of the hapless protagonists.

Because this is a Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie and the only thing you can expect is that nothing will turn out the way you expect, the film takes a brief but unexpected detour into black comedy when Megumi is kidnapped by a manic-depressive burglar (played with exaggerated agitation by Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho). Intriguing and character-relevant in itself, this clashes a little with the sober observational drama that precedes it, the style shift emphasized by a break with the previously linear storytelling. It's a turning point for the narrative in which the crisis factor is increased considerably for both Megumi and Ryuhei. The air of anxiety that floats throughout Tokyo Sonata ensures that when the film's redemptive but ambivalent ending finally arrives, it feels like a genuinely cathartic sidestepping of the nuclear family's inevitable extinction.

Tokyo Sonata is a humorous and incisive modernist chronicle a family who, like the families in Yasujiro Ozu's cinema, is on the verge of disintegration. However, while both directors reflect the inevitability of this dissolution, Kurosawa paradoxically sees the rupture as a necessary trauma towards rebuilding. A sense of renewal is inherent in the final image of the family leaving the stage, figuratively stepping away from the performance to forge their own path in the uncertain future. A hair-raising and emotionally bracing account of a family's disintegration and tentative reconstitution, Tokyo Sonata explores the shifting nature of society and family with a rare and compelling blend of humanity, honesty and cinematic understatement.

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