Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Few Notes of a Tokyo Sonata

Tokyo Sonata begins with the patriarch of a Japanese family being dismissed, in a roundabout way (basically he costs too much and the Chinese are younger and cheaper), from his job at some nameless company. Hardly what someone currently unemployed (like me) wants from their evening's entertainment, but Kiyoshi Kurosawa's film turns out to be a deft, freewheeling, surprising portrait of a nuclear family dissipating amidst the worsening economic depression.

The urban wasteland awaits Ryûhei
Japan has been stuck in an economic downturn longer than the rest of the world, so it's no surprise that when the patriarch, Ryûhei (Teruyuki Kagawa), puts his head down and visits the job centre that the queue spirals down the several levels of building and out the door. Ryûhei doesn't tell his wife or sons about being fired, but their lives spin out of normality too - oldest Takashi (Yû Konanagi) is disenchanted with his homeland and wants to help the world by enlisting in the U.S. military, youngest Kenji (Kai Inowaki) has to develop his prodigal talent for the piano behind his father's back ("How could our child be a prodigy?"), and wife Megumi (Kyôko Koizumi) lingers in the house, her food slowly losing its power to bring the family together.

Tokyo Sonata is about the broken communication in Japanese society, the stiff traditions of internalisation and secrecy combusting in the modernised world, though it's story of masculine pride and generational divides is not unlike American Beauty. It finds human counterparts for the family's problems - Kenji runs into a classmate who is (physically) running away from his father; Ryûhei meets an old friend who is also unemployed, and keeps up a facade that involves his phone automatically ringing five times an hour - to contextualise and strengthen the issue Kurosawa is broaching.

But in its singularly poignant moments, which often blossom from the odd plot turns, particularly in the last half hour, the film sources an involving personal affection. Take this scene, where Ryûhei returns home after dining with the friend he made in the unemployed queue. Megumi is lying on the sofa, exhausted. He wakes her, turns down her offer of tempura and disappears, but he's not out of earshot when she asks:

Unheard, her arms hang in mid-air, and she lifts them further, up towards the ceiling. Whether asking her husband or some higher power, or just anyone who'll listen, the emptiness in Megumi's life is evident in her hazy, bewildered eyes as they gaze upwards.

Ryûhei doesn't touch Megumi until the end of the film.

Tokyo Sonata seems to demonize the patriarch to excess, hating him as much as it pities him, and the way it deals with him in the final stretches, especially in comparison to the piquant sequences granted to Megumi, leaves doubtful questions hanging over the ending. But these questions linger, and perhaps they are intentional worries about how everything resolves itself. The final sequence of the film is remarkably evocative and enthralling, and the silent wondering over it only strengthens the experience of a pointed social critique. B+


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Epschofield said...

I got this DVD but it wasn't compatible with my player. Arghhh! Now I'm determined to watch! I'm loving Japanese cinema at the moment. Memories of Matsuko was a recent favourite of mine.