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Review: ‘Tokyo Sonata’ Is Filled With Beauty and Misery

Families in crisis, unemployment, and the painful lack of communication are issues detached from any one time or place. In today’s economic climate especially, these concerns are felt worldwide in almost every home.
By  · Published on April 3rd, 2009

Families in crisis, unemployment, and the painful lack of communication are issues detached from any one time or place.  In today’s economic climate especially, these concerns are felt worldwide in almost every home.  Japan is no different, and by all accounts they’ve actually been in a recession for much longer than the US.  Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa has traded in the surreal and supernatural horrors of his past films for the terrifying reality we all live in today.  Tokyo Sonata is an unintentional response to the current economic environment by way of one family’s misery, loss, and possible redemption.

Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) is a member of upper management for a large corporation… until he isn’t.  He’s told his job is being exported to cheaper workers in China, but the husband and father discovers he’s too proud and ashamed to reveal the firing to his family.  Instead he gets dressed every morning and exits the house, briefcase in hand, as if nothing has changed.  He hits up the long lines at the unemployment office, he applies for other jobs, and he discovers an entire subculture of family men living the very same lie.  The loss goes unspoken, but it still reverberates throughout his family.  His wife, Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), also finds herself adrift as her husband becomes more distant and her two sons need her less and less.  An offbeat opportunity for escape comes in the form of a home invasion gone awry, and Megumi throws herself into the situation with abandon.  Takashi (Yu Koyanagi), the eldest, finds his life wanting and decides to join the American military with it’s inherent risk of being shipped to Iraq.  The final member of this family in turmoil is both the youngest and the most aware.  Kenji (Inowaki Kai) champions fairness above all, sometimes before thinking things through… as when his teacher punishes him for something he didn’t do and he responds by announcing to the class that he witnessed the teacher reading a pornographic manga on the train.  Each member of the family is suffering, but their failure to communicate means each of them is suffering alone.  As the lies continue to grow, drastic decisions and opportunities will determine whether the family survives or fails.

The various threads play out independently of each other at first with the family home being the only place where any interaction occurs.  Individually they’re all falling apart or in serious flux, but when they walk through the front door greetings are exchanged and the illusion of a cohesive warmth is presented.  As Ryuhei’s desperation grows though even this small courtesy becomes corrupted and revealed as a lie.  He comes home to find Megumi asleep on the couch.  She awakens and attempts to communicate but he heads upstairs deaf to her voice. “Someone please pull me up,” she says, arms raised and empty.

Kenji and his own challenges become more central to the story as he appears to be the only who seems capable of making smart and aware decisions.  His earlier proclamation to the class has him deified by the other students and removed from the teacher’s radar.  The former holds no interest for the boy, but the latter disturbs him.  He discovers a desire to learn piano but when his father forbids it he decides to reappropriate funds meant for school lunches and take lessons on the sly.  The discovery of the deception sends Ryuhei into a rage and he derides the boy for lying and sneaking around behind their backs… his desire for control over something, anything, blinds him to the hypocrisy.

Tokyo Sonata is one of the more beautiful films of the year, and that’s due in equal parts to Kurosawa’s eye as well as the performances of the three main leads.  (Koyanagi is fine but his role is smaller and less affecting than the rest.)  Kagawa’s face pours shame as a father and husband unable to provide for his family.  Koizumi is equally strong as the mother and wife who feels unnecessary and invisible.  So much so that when an opportunity to escape from it all behind the wheel of a sportscar arrives in the form of a knife-wielding captor she says yes without hesitation.  Kai is the powerful surprise here in his first role.  His eyes display a deeply fierce intellect and an affecting loneliness making him an actor to watch.

If the film has a flaw it’s in the presentation of Megumi’s kidnapping.  Kurosawa muse Koji Yakusho plays an inept burglar and kidnapper who seems to exist solely as an exit for Megumi.  He provides her with the opportunity she thinks she wants and needs, and while it fits thematically the scenes don’t play as realistically as the rest of the film.  That’s literally the case during the worst green screen driving scenes ever put to film.  But all of that is forgivable when weighed against the rest of the film, and forgettable when the final scene plays out with music and expressions in place of dialogue.

Tokyo Sonata is currently in limited theatrical release.  Check out the trailer below.

Bottom Line: Tokyo Sonata is filled with beautiful misery and a loss of identity, and while that sounds bleak and depressing the film is actually engaging, interesting, occasionally funny and sweet, and ultimately a triumph of the family as well as the individual.  The kidnapping scenes becomes a bit absurd, but they don’t overpower the flow and drama surrounding them.  The ending is powerfully satisfying, and fantastic performances round out what is not only Kurosawa’s best film but one of the year’s best as well.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.