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Tokyo Sonata (Movie 2008): Japanese Society’s Fault Lines Exposed

Tokyo Sonata Teruyuki KagawaTokyo Sonata movie with Teruyuki Kagawa: Yasujiro Ozu (Late Spring, Tokyo Story) would likely have appreciated Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s glimpse into the heart of an “average” Japanese family.
  • Tokyo Sonata (movie 2008) review: In Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s (mostly) restrained, beautifully shot, and capably acted socio-psychological drama, the ties that bind an “ordinary” Japanese family – a mirror to countless other households in Japan and elsewhere – slowly come undone.

Tokyo Sonata (movie 2008) review: Kiyoshi Kurosawa etches portrait of 21st-century Japan’s unraveling social fabric

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Some reviewers have described Tokyo Sonata, winner of this year’s Asian Film Awards for Best Film and Best Screenplay, as a depiction of the disintegration of an “ordinary” Japanese family after the head of the household gets laid off from his administrative post at a big corporation.

Although that is technically an accurate summary, it doesn’t quite cover all that happens in director and co-screenwriter Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s delicately handled, beautifully shot, and capably acted representation of the unraveling of social and personal role constraints in 21st-century Japan.

Ready to burst

Written by Kurosawa (best known for horror fare like Cure and Kairo, and no relation to Akira), Tachiko Tanaka, and Max Mannix, Tokyo Sonata revolves around an “ordinary” urban family – and, by extension, a society – about to burst at the seams.

So don’t be deceived by the initial idyllic glimpse into the Sasaki household, located in what looks like a middle-class Tokyo suburb. For underneath its placid surroundings lies a craving for something more; one that erupts to the surface after the white-collar job of Ryûhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) is outsourced to China, where salaries are supposed to be a third of those in Japan.

Once the unthinkable happens, Sasaki is at a loss what to do with his life. He can’t open up even to his wife and children, for fear he would lose both his honor and his authority.

Instead, he pretends to go to work every day while actually hanging out at libraries and parks, surrounded by indigents and dozens of other former (male) white-collar employees who apparently are just as concerned with keeping up appearances at home. One former high-school buddy (Kanji Tsuda), for instance, even has his cell phone ring several times per hour so he can have business conversations with his imaginary callers.

Reaching the boiling point

Meanwhile, trouble is brewing at home as well.

Sasaki’s good-looking but none too bright older son, Takashi (Yû Koyanagi), decides to join the U.S. military (Japanese constitution forbids the country from going to war; in the film, the U.S. is accepting foreign enlistees) because he wants to “spread peace in the world.”

The younger son, Kenji (Inowaki Kai) wants to study piano, but must do so behind his parents’ back after Dad flatly refuses his request. (Later, Sasaki can’t back down for fear of losing face.)

Perhaps most troubling of all, perfect Mom and Wife Megumi (Kyôko Koizumi) begins to wonder whether there’s more to life than, well, being the perfect Mom and Wife. As she eventually finds out, indeed there is.

Tokyo Sonata Kyôko KoizumiTokyo Sonata with Kyôko Koizumi. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s social/family drama topped the Best Film and Best Screenplay categories at the Asian Film Awards, in addition to winning the Jury Prize (“runner-up prize”) at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar.

Extraordinary ‘ordinariness’

At its core, Tokyo Sonata demonstrates that there’s nothing ordinary about “ordinary people.”

Complexities and contradictions are found everywhere. Social roles, labels, and identities – husband, wife, father, mother, son, head of the family, white-collar worker, janitor, student, teacher – are not only deceiving to others, but to oneself as well.

A man of integrity must thus lie to those closest to him in order to keep that very (as perceived) integrity. An inept locksmith (Kôji Yakusho) can have an equally inept burglar residing inside him.

In one memorable scene, a schoolteacher, believing himself the bastion of propriety, learns an embarrassing lesson after he chastises Kenji for having an “improper” manga in class. Outraged because the magazine wasn’t even his, the boy reminds the teacher of the time he was surreptitiously reading manga porn on the subway.

And in one of the film’s most touching moments, Megumi, having been kidnapped by the aforementioned klutzy burglar, prays to the heavens that she be set free from her nightmarish situation. No, not the kidnapping, which she sees as liberating, but her whole life up until then.

Noteworthy but imperfect effort

Tokyo Sonata has numerous qualities. Chief among them are its key cast members: Teruyuki Kagawa, as the appropriately befuddled “family man”; Kyôko Koizumi, whose understated characterization is nothing short of brilliant; and Inowaki Kai, excellent as the Sasakis’ willful child prodigy.

Other major pluses include Akiko Ashizawa’s poetic cinematography and an absurdist last third featuring Megumi’s kidnapping, a hit-and-run accident, and a night in jail.

On the downside, Tokyo Sonata has several not insignificant flaws as well. Chief among them are its excessive length – the film could easily have been 15 minutes shorter – and the filmmakers’ sporadic decision to emphasize the obvious, e.g., the early scenes showing us that big business’ one concern is the bottom line.

Additionally, the kidnapping sequences fail to fully realize their humorous potential because locksmith-turned-burglar Kôji Yakusho (who was impeccably subdued in Shall We Dance?) seems to be (over)acting in a different movie altogether.

The Big One is already here

While writing this brief Tokyo Sonata commentary, one passage comes to mind.

That’s when older son Takashi, frustrated with his aimless life, wonders out loud when the big earthquake – the one that will really shake things up – will finally hit Tokyo.

Yet both Tokyo Sonata and current news headlines amply demonstrate that The Big One is taking place right now. And not only in Japan.

In a world where human beings are valued – including by themselves – in terms of their economic usefulness and social standing, perhaps our only hope lies in understanding and accepting one another’s needs and aspirations, even if that means understanding the reasoning of those you’re fighting in a war far away from home or accepting a young boy’s ability to create beautiful music.

Tokyo Sonata (movie 2008) cast & crew

Director: Kyoshi Kurosawa.

Screenplay: Kyoshi Kurosawa, Max Mannix, and Tachiko Tanaka.

Cast: Teruyuki Kagawa, Kyôko Koizumi, Inowaki Kai, Yû Koyanagi, Kôji Yakusho, Haruka Igawa, Kanji Tsuda, Kazuya Kogima.

Cinematography: Akiko Ashizawa.

Film Editing: Kôichi Takahashi.

Music: Kazumasa Hashimoto.

Production Design: Tomoyuki Maruo & Tomoe Matsumoto.

Producers: Wouter Barendrecht & Yukie Kito.

Production Companies: Entertainment FARM | Fortissimo Films | Hakuhodo DY Media Partners | PiX.

Distributors: PiX (Japan) | Regent Releasing (United States, 2009).

Running Time: 120 min.

Countries: Japan | The Netherlands | Hong Kong.

Tokyo Sonata (Movie 2008): Japanese Society’s Fault Lines Exposed” notes

Tokyo Sonata movie credits via the British Film Institute (BFI) website.

Teruyuki Kagawa and Kyôko Koizumi Tokyo Sonata movie images: Regent Releasing.

Tokyo Sonata (Movie 2008): Japanese Society’s Fault Lines Exposed” last updated in April 2023.

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