Tokyo Sonata

English Title: Tokyo Sonata

Original Title: Tôkyô sonata

Country of Origin: Japan

Studio: Django Film, Entertainment Farm (EF), Fortissimo Films

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Producer(s): Yukie Kito, Wouter Barendrecht

Screenplay: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Sachiko Tanaka

Cinematographer: Akiko Ashizawa

Art Director: Tomoyuki Maruo , Tomoe Matsumoto

Editor: Koichi Takahashi

Runtime: 119 minutes

Genre: Drama

Starring/Cast: Teruyuki Kagawa, Kyoko Koizumi, Yû Koyanagi, Inowaki Kai

Year: 2008

Volume: Japanese

Salary man Ryuhei Sasaki has lost his job as Director of Administration for a large firm. The company has decided to outsource a great deal of its work to China since they can now get three people working for the price of one in Japan. The shame is overpowering for Ryuhei and he decides not to tell his wife while he searches for another position. He discovers that he's not alone in this kind of deception as many other white collar workers are keeping similar same secrets from their families while they line up at soup kitchens. Meanwhile, Ryuhei tries to retain some semblance of control at home – especially with his sons. He forbids just about everyone from pursuing activities that would make them happy without providing any reasons. This insistence on attempting to regain some form of control further distances himself from his sons and his wife. What he hasn't noticed, however, is that the whole family has already started shutting each other out.

Most articles about Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata took great pains to point out that it was not a horror picture. As the filmmaker behind some of the best J-Horror films, it made sense to separate Kurosawa's first straight drama from the type of film for which he is best known. Covering basic themes like hypocrisy, loneliness, Japan's patriarchal society and the consequences of borders, the film avoids standard genre form conventions, and yet it is still horrifying at times. Ryuhei's family does not so much talk to each other as ‘at’ each other. They've pretty much sealed themselves off in their own worlds. It's in this environment that Ryuhei tries to exert further control in order to regain his stature as head of the household. He tries to stop the eldest son from joining the U.S. Army and forbids his youngest from studying piano. He gives no reasons - he just needs to have the control. He rationalizes to his wife that once he has said 'no', he cannot change his mind for fear of losing authority over his children. His position within society has been taken from him, so he desperately needs to retain his traditional role in the family. There seems to be an abundance of hypocrisy, however, since youngest son Kenji is chided by both teacher and father for doing things that they themselves do. It's behaviour that appears to be commonplace. Kurosawa sets up most of his interior shots to have layers of different frames: windows, arches, shelves and just about anything else that can divide and separate his characters from each other. It's incredibly effective in depicting a family that has shut themselves off. In addition, the occasional dropping out of all sound helps us to focus on a single person's feelings - yet another way of having a character isolated from what is around them. Of course, that's not the only way Kurosawa uses sound. Low ominous rumbles, blowing winds and echoing trains signal the continued slide of the family's fate. As each member of the family begins to get more desperate for not only a way out but a way to start over, the tone of the film seems to lose its way a bit. First, it attempts to mirror some of the issues of the family as well as the societal structure of Japan with U.S. involvement in Iraq, but it feels a bit forced within the context of the film. In addition, the late appearance of another character, a thief played by Koji Yakusho, brings some strangely comedic scenes into the story - not only due to the thief's bumbling attempts, but also because of Yakusho's broad and almost over-the-top performance. Again, it feels like this section was shoehorned into the story. Overall however, there is some beautifully realized moments in Tokyo Sonata. The film makes a strong case for rejecting societal roles that box people into specific behaviours. Perhaps there may even be some hope lingering outside those limiting conventions.

Author of this review: Bob Turnbull