Plaintive Melody: Tokyo Sonata
Best known for his ingeniously terrifying Pulse, a ghostly techno-thriller about a rash of suicides in contemporary urban Japan (remade, badly, in 2006 from a Wes Craven script), Kiyoshi Kurosawa has tirelessly confounded our expectations of genre film. What unites the supernatural elements of his most devilishly clever horror flicks (Cure, Séance, Retribution) and the abstract expressions of dread and despair in his other hard-to-categorize outings (Charisma, Barren Illusion, Bright Future) might be hard to specify, but there is often a sense that society and the individual are at odds, and that this tension gives rise to a host of ills from ennui and emptiness, loneliness and desperation to homicidal impulses and other aberrant behavior. Kurosawa, a former sociology student, is not a didactic or message-oriented filmmaker, necessarily, but his near-annual forays into horror/sci fi do reveal him to be a pointed social critic working in the defiant spirit, if not the precise register, of David Cronenberg and George A. Romero.
So what to make of Tokyo Sonata, a plaintive domestic family drama whose evocative title and basic set-up allude quite curiously to one of Ozu’s postwar meditations on shifting values and generational conflict in modern Japanese society? Half an hour into this cool, calmly unfolding melodrama (which opens March 13 in New York), you could be forgiven for wondering: whither the ashen-faced wraiths and poison jellyfish? Rest assured, Kurosawa has not forsaken his gothic roots, even if he has swapped one set of genre tropes for another, adopting a more traditional approach that he has every intention of subverting. Sonata is not so much a radical “departure” for Kurosawa as it is a variation on a theme he has been exploring repeatedly in his less commercial body of work, at least since License to Live (1998), about a family man who must reorient to life after waking from a 10-year coma. In that film, and perhaps more obliquely in Bright Future, a vaguely mystical allegory centered on two disaffected young factory workers, Kurosawa presents characters who are forced to reevaluate their reality when something foreign (a car accident, inexplicable violence) suddenly, shockingly invades their daily lives. Sonata digs into a bourgeois family’s spiritual malaise by means of a similar crisis: in this case (and quite appropriately for our financially beleaguered times) the humiliation of a downsizing.
As the film opens, middle-aged salaryman Ryuhei (played by sour-faced veteran Teruyuki Kagawa) is informed by a much younger executive at his firm that his administrative job has been outsourced to China. Unable to reveal this embarrassing fact to his wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) or his two sons, teenage Takashi (Yu Koyangi) and young Kenji (Kai Inowaki), with whom he barely communicates to begin with, Ryuhei maintains the charade of dressing for work and heading to the office, when in fact he spends his days standing in free food lines at a local park and interviewing, fruitlessly, for a new position. Eventually, he finds a temp job scrubbing public toilets in a ritzy shopping mall, where he doffs his tailored suit each day for a pair of janitor’s overalls.
If Kurosawa seems to have cribbed this scenario from Laurent Cantet’s Time Out, a film that also limned the social pathology of “keeping up appearances” and the idea of work as a pillar of personal identity, then he soon twists the irony to his own ends. He also widens the frame a bit to portray the private world of more than one character: Each member of the Sasaki family is unhappy in some way, and each pursues a path of liberation, both from the hermetic, suffocating environment of the home—lit in claustrophobically noirish tones by Akika Ahizawa —and the labile whims of Ryuhei, who in his private frustration and injured sense of self-worth is neither fair nor affectionate toward his loved ones. Megumi, a silent sufferer who tolerates her husband’s petty tyranny as head of household (in one dinner scene, no one dares touch their food until Ryuhei, exulting in male privilege, has savored the first taste of his evening beer), eventually finds an exotic route to freedom. Kenji, a budding talent with an interest in music, secretly begins taking piano lessons (using his stowed lunch money) which Ryuhei has narrow-mindedly refused to indulge or pay for. And Takashi, longing for a sense of purpose, courts his father’s explosive rage when he enlists in the U.S. military’s campaign in Iraq along with a small Japanese regiment.
Halfway through Tokyo Sonata, though, the sudden appearance of a home intruder (played by Kurosawa factotum Koji Yakusho) sends this mannered, well-appointed social drama off the rails, almost into the realm of pure farce. It’s a classic bait-and-switch maneuver by the director, whose sardonic, black-comic touches (like the uncomfortable dinner Ryuhei shares at the home of his laid-off high-school friend, whose phone is set to ring five times an hour so he appears to be taking important calls) give way to broad humor and antics belonging more to a half-baked heist thriller. Clearly, Kurosawa is keen to explore social maladies in bourgeois Japanese family life, but his auteurist tendencies dominate the second movement of Sonata, threatening to occlude his humanistic points of concern. Even a grim episode of domestic violence, unleashed when Ryuhei reacts to Kenji’s deception with a hail of blows, elicits a macabre flourish, in which the boy’s stiff, lifeless body is grotesquely hurled down a flight of stairs. (He isn’t dead.)
Nevertheless, in the lovely and moving final scene — a formal piano recital in which the beautifully inexpressive Kenji performs Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” while his parents look on — Kurosawa recoups all the emotional power he has coaxed from the film’s basic narrative set-up before dispersing it in that big, playful turn, and delivers a coup de grace that, for all its stillness and indirection, equals in impact that breathtaking image of a low-flying jet in flames that brings to an apocalyptic close the willfully baffling Pulse. Only Takashi remains absent in this pageant of familial reconstruction. He does appear briefly, in an odd homecoming sequence, mournfully telling his mother about his complicity in a war atrocity (“I killed people”) only to vanish completely from the story, leaving not so much as an ashen scar on the wall. What Kurosawa’s tortured young soldier—the film’s true enigma, its de facto ghost— is meant to communicate or symbolize is, one assumes, more existential than political, and has something to do with the ambivalent hope and promise of youth. Yet it’s hard to be sure. Ambiguity, as always, is the director’s cunning way of haunting us with his sense of the ineffable disquiet at the heart of modern life.
Originally posted on 10/16/08 for New York Film Festival 2008 coverage.