Some reviews and commentaries describe Tokyo Sonata, winner of this year’s Asian Film Awards for best film and best screenplay, as showing the disintegration of an “ordinary” Japanese family after the husband-father gets laid off from his administrative post at a big corporation. Although technically that is an accurate summary of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s study of social and personal roles in Japanese society, it doesn’t quite indicate all that happens in this curious, beautifully shot, delicately directed, and capably acted drama.
Written by Kurosawa (known for his horror films, and no relation to Akira), Max Mannix, and Tachiko Tanaka, Tokyo Sonata paints a portrait of an urban family (and a society) ready to burst at the seams. So, don’t be deceived by the initial idyllic look at the Sasaki household, located in what looks like a middle-class Tokyo suburb. Underneath it all lies a yearning for something more; a yearning that erupts to the surface after Ryûhei Sasaki’s white-collar job is outsourced to China, where salaries are supposed to be a third of those in Japan.
Sasaki (played with appropriate befuddlement by Teruyuki Kagawa) doesn’t quite know what to do with either himself or his life after he becomes unemployed. He can’t tell his wife and children; else, he would lose his honor and authority. He opts instead to pretend to go to work every day, while actually hanging out in 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 make-believe business chats with his imaginary callers.
Meanwhile, trouble brews at home as well. The 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 US is accepting foreign enlistees) because he wants to “spread peace in the world.” The younger son, Kenji (Inowaki Kai, excellent as a willful child prodigy) wants to learn to play the piano, but must do it behind his parents’ back after Dad flatly refuses his request. (Later, Mr. Sasaki can’t back down for fear of losing face.) Perhaps most troubling of all, perfect Mom and Wife Megumi (Kyôko Koizumi, whose understated performance is nothing short of brilliant) begins wondering if there’s more to life than, well, being the perfect Mom and Wife.
Indeed there is. Kurosawa, Mannix, and Tanaka show that there’s nothing “ordinary” about those ordinary people. Social roles and identities – husband, wife, father, mother, son, head of the family, white-collar worker, janitor, student, teacher – are not only deceiving, they’re self-deceiving as well. A man of integrity must lie in order to keep that very (perceived) integrity. An inept locksmith can have an equally inept burglar residing inside him. In one particularly effective scene, a schoolteacher, believing himself the bastion of “proper” behavior, is put into an uncomfortable place by Kenji after he chastises the boy for having an “improper” manga in class. Outraged because the magazine wasn’t even his, Kenji turns on the teacher, reminding him in front of the class of the time he was surreptitiously reading manga porn on the subway.
One of the most touching moments in Tokyo Sonata takes place when Megumi, having been kidnapped by the aforementioned klutzy burglar, talks to the heavens, wishing to wake up from the nightmarish morass she has created for herself. No, not the kidnapping, which she sees as liberating, but her whole life until that moment.
Now, despite its many qualities – among them Akiko Ashizawa’s poetic cinematography, and a gripping if thoroughly absurdist last third involving the aforementioned kidnapping, a hit-and-run accident, and a night in jail – Tokyo Sonata has its flaws as well. My chief qualms are its length – the film’s 119 minutes could easily have lost a good quarter of an hour – and a certain tendency to state the obvious, e.g., the initial scenes in which we get to see how the only concern of big business is the bottom line. It’s not as if we didn’t already know that. Also, much of the humor in the kidnapping scenes is lost because, as the locksmith-turned-burglar, Kôji Yakusho (who was beautifully subdued in Shall We Dance?) looks like he’s (over)acting in a whole different movie.
As I write about Tokyo Sonata, one brief passage comes to mind. At one point, Takashi, the older son, frustrated with his aimless life, wonders out loud when the big earthquake, the one that will really shake things up, will finally hit Tokyo. 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 – even by themselves – in terms of their productivity and social standing perhaps our only hope lies in understanding and acceptance, even if that means understanding the motives 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 (2008). Director: Kyoshi Kurosawa. Screenplay: Kyoshi Kurosawa, Max Mannix, Tachiko Tanaka. Cast: Teruyuki Kagawa, Kyôko Koizumi, Inowaki Kai, Yû Koyanagi, Kôji Yakusho, Haruka Igawa, Kanji Tsuda, Kazuya Kogima