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Tokyo Sonata (Kurosawa Kiyoshi 2008)


Tokyo Sonata

Genre: Personal, Familial and Social Crises in Contemporary Japan

review in one breath

When a Tokyo salaryman loses his job, his personal identity and family stability are suddenly forced to the point of implosion. Hiding his shameful predicament from his family, he leaves the house daily as if going to the office, only to spend his hours in food lines and the unemployment agency. Despite his every effort to keep things intact, his family's cohesion slowly disintegrates as forces internal and external come to a head. This is the latest film by director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and marks an intentional break from his previous work in psycho-horror.


Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa has long been a master of placing people in extreme situations and watching their moral and internal worlds collapse around them. This motif has been the predominant theme in nearly all of his international "horror" films, from Cure (1997) to Sakebi/Retribution (2006). His most recent film, Tokyo Sonata also shares this theme but in a degree and manner which markedly departs from his previous work. There is no element of "horror" here, no incomprehensible "extreme" into which the characters are cast, no troubled visions from a tortured conscience or otherworldly apparitions. Instead, the seemingly immovable source of angst faced by those in Tokyo Sonata is contemporary Japan itself, with its unyielding adherence to traditional structure, social roles and collective conscience.

It is clear from interviews with Kurosawa regarding this film that he intends this to be a tale involving "a very ordinary family in modern Japan", depicted "with as little exaggeration as possible". And while the role and limitations of individual conscience become part of the overarching equation, the film seems first and foremost a statement on the aimless soul of contemporary Japanese society and by extension, the families and individuals which comprise it. As in many of Kurosawa's films, salvation remains unattainable until one traverses the fires of Hell. And the Hell of Tokyo Sonata is the very real threat and experience of falling out of society's ranks and finding no other ground for one's sense of personal identity, life meaning, or the well-being of those to whom you are bound emotionally and socially.

The focus of the film is on an average Tokyo family of four consisting of the father Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa), mother Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), college-aged son Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) and 6th-grade son Kenji (Inowaki Kai). Although the looming social chasm impacts each of these four, it does so in very different ways as the narrative unfolds. Kurosawa himself describes these tensions in terms of "internal" and "external" worlds, emphasizing the dichotomy between larger social forces and the seemingly protected environ of the home. As father, husband and bread-winner, Ryuhei experiences the most explicit, head-on collision with the external world while trying to keep the internal world of his home intact. As mother, wife and home maker, Megumi's experiences are limited to those within the internal world of her family, yet nevertheless sees more clearly than any of them the fragility and progressive dissolution of its cohesion. As a young adult, Takashi has only one foot in the external world as he gradually determines his course in life, but the stifling social constructs he senses drive him to consider reality outside his home country. And young Kenji quickly learns the boundary between being in-step and out of bounds, and discovers his heart belongs to the latter.

Sensing the vast discrepancy between what society has prescribed for them and what their lives actually are, each finds him/herself on an isolated trajectory leading from the center of the home outward in different directions like spokes of a wheel. Tokyo Sonata explores the possibility of recovery and redemption in such a situation, hoping to somehow lay at the feet of the viewer a dissection of contemporary Japan's unspoken, poisonous woes.


Tokyo Sonata accomplishes what it sets out to do, namely depict an average contemporary Tokyo family in the midst of a plausible, socially-fueled crisis and explore a possible path of recovery. And it does so in the emotionally moving and visually polished manner which we would expect from director Kurosawa. The imagery and nuance of despondence and isolation are palpable and the performance of the entire cast is very convincing.

Less convincing, I admit, were several plot elements which not only seemed to transgress Kurosawa's stated goal of avoiding unnecessary exaggeration but flirted with sheer implausibility. Ironically, many of these elements would properly fit into Kurosawa's more metaphorical, other-worldly films of the horror genre. Here, however, given the film's overall aim of realistic plausibility, they stand out so abruptly as to jar the viewer into an awareness of plot contrivances.

Consider for example the element of "violence" introduced via the hit-and-run scene or the sudden home invasion by a depressed, knife-wielding robber (played by Koji Yakusho). In terms of plot, these both provide key transitional moments but are no doubt very far from the experience of "a very ordinary family in modern Japan". While such action undoubtedly increases a certain degree of entertainment value, it simultaneously undermines the film's ultimate goal of addressing a very real social dilemma. Relying on unrealistic elements to make a supposedly meaningful point is not the most convincing method to adopt.

Other elements of similar impact include the fictitious policy allowing Takashi to join the US military, a situation which will likely leave US viewers scratching their heads, while the overdrawn sentimentality evoked in his decision to "remain in Iraq and fight alongside the indigenous people" caused immediate flashbacks of the sappy call to arms in Battle Royale 2. Surely there is an alternative, more realistic means demonstrating the dissatisfaction of Japanese youth than this artificial (and impossible) scenario.

And given the critical prominence of Kenji's personal interest in music, providing the "sonata" in Tokyo Sonata, it seems wholly unnecessary and counter-productive to elevate him to the status of "musical genius" or "child prodigy". Wouldn't the flm's final message and moral have been far more meaningful and substantive had Kenji been drawn as an "average" child whose personal pursuit and struggling accomplishment provided the family with the same catharsis? As it stands, it seems that only Kenji's unnatural, unrivaled ability is able to elevate his family past their behemoth problems. This, of course, suggests little hope for the rest of us.

I would suggest that none of the elements I mention above are required to fully depict and address Kurosawa's primary concern and thus could have been replaced with more realistic scenarios rather than being granted such pivotal, inextricable roles in the narrative. Each is at best an "exaggeration" and at worst evidence of corners conveniently cut in terms of fleshing out and honestly dealing with the social problems aimed at.

In a metaphorical world pregnant with the possibility of stark irrationality (such as that of Charisma) such exaggerations are fully functional and can blend wholly into a narrative's trajectory. But they do not characterize the real experiences of "ordinary" people and instead jut out of this otherwise realistic narrative like foreign, obtrusive pillars. Of the intended realism of Tokyo Sonata, Kurosawa has stated that he expects this to become "a new point of departure" in his direction of film. While I personally prefer Kurosawa return to the Psycho-Horror genre, I feel he did not break away cleanly enough from his past storytelling in this current pursuit of complex realism. The old recourse to exaggeration and non-realistic elements continues to play a major role here, one which I admit I found quite distracting and undermining.

Tokyo Sonata was shown during the 2008 International Film Festival here in Chicago and elsewhere. It is currently being screened in Los Angeles and San Fransisco, with wider national screenings planned in the next few months. (You can find the schedule here.) The film will undoubtedly be released (soon) in Region 1 DVD format and headed your way.

Version reviewed: Region 1 DVD (Currently unreleased)

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa strives for realism in this tale of social woe and personal redemption. Little Kenji gets slapped around and thrown down the stairs. Dad gets hit by a truck and mom has a knife waved in her face. Only hapless dry humping. A new tact for director Kurosawa, leaving the days of psycho-horror behind him.
OH, for the good ole days of psycho-horror!

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