Tokyo Sonata

Tokyo Sonata (2008)

Tokyo Sonata first published by Film4

Summary: Japan’s contemporay nightmares are domesticated in this allegorical family drama dirrected and co-written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

Review: No matter in what genre he works, Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Charisma, Pulse, Bright Future) is Japan’s undisputed king of blank, using such a coolly dispassionate and aloof style to usher in surreal fantasy, irrational horror, and even the apocalypse itself that you barely see them coming, even if the anxiety associated with them is present and palpable in every image. Long shots, still frames, muted colours, undemonstrative performances – these are Kurosawa’s stock in trade, and he deploys them once again to disarmingly uncanny effect in his latest and most conventional film, Tokyo Sonata. It is in essence an Ozu-aping family drama, but there is always menace simmering beneath the surface of its quiet scenes.   

In the opening sequence, papers flutter about in the interior of the Sasaki family home, as an unwanted blast of air pours through the rear door before housewife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) can close it. “It’s a real storm!” comments her husband Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) on the other side of town, as he looks out the window of the medical equipment firm where he works as Administrative Director – and sure enough, there is an ill wind blowing which will soon throw this middle-aged salaryman’s professional and domestic life into disarray. 

Down-sized without warning, Ryuhei chooses, much like the protagonist of Laurent Cantet’s Time Out (2001), to conceal his unemployment from his family – dividing his days between the queue at the employment agency and the line for food hand-outs at the park, while picking up tips from his friend Kurosu (Kanji Tsuda), who has been hiding his joblessness for even longer, on how best to keep up appearances, even as both their situations become ever more desperate.

Home life is also fragile. Ryuhei’s seemingly feckless elder son Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) decides to enlist with the US army against his father’s will, while his younger brother Kenji (Kai Inowaki), already learning lessons in adult hypocrisy at school, secretly goes against his father’s peremptory refusal to let him study the piano. Megumi, too, knows more than she is saying, and is not sure how long she should put up with Ryuhei’s aimless intransigence and unfounded authoritarianism. Question the mainstays of Japanese society, though, and who knows what else besides wind might blow in through the backdoor, bringing danger but also the possibility of change.   

Steadily shot and calmly acted, Tokyo Sonata plays out with what at first seems a stark naturalism, but this is as much of a front as Ryuhei’s own pretence at normalcy. Little hints dropped here and there – Megumi waking Ryuhei from a nightmare, Megumi having her own nightmare about Takashi’s return from Iraq – suggest that dream and reality are not always so easily distinguished within the damaged experiences of these characters, preparing the viewer for the irrationality of their climactic crises. These will be, especially for Megumi, of a different, more abstract order than all that has preceded – even if they are presented with the same deadpan flatness.  

Kurosawa’s film dramatises a waking nightmare of recession, patriarchal emasculation, divorce, the generation gap and the breakdown of law and order – all at a time when Japan (not to mention the world beyond) is facing immense economic pressures that represent a powerful challenge to the status quo. If the film portrays a spiralling hell of social disintegration and death, the director grants the viewer a comforting coda of harmony and renewal – but by then, we can no longer be sure if what we are seeing is a genuine adaptation to new circumstances and a ‘bright future’, or merely an impossible fantasy of starting over. Yet even if its aftermath remains somewhat ambiguous, the storm that Kurosawa shows sweeping through these characters’ lives is real, familiar, and very unsettling.  

Verdict: It may be a departure from his recent forays into J-horror, but in this family drama and allegory of contemporary Japanese anxieties, Kiyoshi Kurosawa is still rocking a haunted house. 

© Anton Bitel