Film 'Tokyo Sonata' a Remarkable Expose of Domestic Dysfunction

Photo: Yu Koyanagi plays Takashi Sasaki and Kyoko Koizumi plays his mother Megumi Sasaki in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 'Tokyo Sonata.'
Regent Releasing/Courtesy
Yu Koyanagi plays Takashi Sasaki and Kyoko Koizumi plays his mother Megumi Sasaki in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 'Tokyo Sonata.'

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Parting the veil on a Japanese household teetering on the verge of collapse, "Tokyo Sonata" may be director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's most conventional work-if conventional is the right word for a film that explores the contemporary family dynamic with such brooding fortitude. The renowned Japanese horror filmmaker has created a startlingly candid portrait of domestic life in "Tokyo Sonata," a film that, by evoking the waking nightmares of repressed souls, brims with a terror of its own accord.

Businessman Ryuhei Sasaki, victimized by economic downsizing after his company terminates his job, chooses to hide his predicament from his family by roaming the streets of Tokyo during daytime. His wife Megumi juggles housewife duties and a tenuous relationship with her oldest son Takashi, whose desire to break away from tradition echoes the detachment of Japanese youth in a society wreathed in materialism. The youngest member of the family, Kenji, rebels against authority yet displays sensitivity beyond his age when he discovers an innate passion for piano.

Juxtaposing tight interior shots of living rooms with panoramic compositions of urban sprawl, Kurosawa imbues the film with something of an otherworldly presence-a haunting, dreamlike aura that pervades "Tokyo Sonata" as its dysfunctional family continues to crumble inwardly. Conversations dissipate; lies build on previous lies; a mother's love is torn between duty and empathy. Humiliated by his jobless situation yet determined to maintain his patriarchal status, Ryuhei physically abuses Kenji for secretly taking piano lessons after browbeating Megumi for allowing Takashi to join the military. Recession-plagued Tokyo, already a landscape of existential lament, gradually takes a backseat to familial destruction.

The film's blend of domestic drama and social commentary is both poignant and timely. Office workers like Ryuhei and his colleagues are portrayed as ironic victims of the Japanese male dynamic, driven by their obligations to home and work yet completely unwilling to compromise after hitting rock bottom. In displaying the failure of authority in a culture that revolves around it, Kurosawa draws poignant contrasts. "We're like a slowly sinking ship," grieves an unemployed friend of Ryuhei. "The lifeboats are gone, the water's up to our mouths." Like a vessel slowly sliding into oblivion, ideals built around workplaces and households slowly disintegrate, replaced by coldness and bitter angst.

Tellingly, "Tokyo Sonata" eventually mirrors these systematic collapses by venturing into surreal territory. In one of the film's most affecting sequences, an afternoon nap turns into a chilling seance when Takashi returns home from the war, saying to his mother, "I killed so many people." Megumi's troubled psyche finally begins to eat away at her maternal strength. When a wayward burglar abducts her, and Ryuhei and Kenji encounter catastrophic situations, the film's quiet buildup escalates into irreversible mayhem.

When does it end, and where does it begin? The mother's catharsis, manifested in a sequence of lasting power, injects rays of hope into an otherwise miserable flurry of dead ends. The final movement of "Tokyo Sonata," uneven as it is compared to its predecessors, completes the cycle of fall and salvation with admirable finality. Powerfully acted and impeccably orchestrated, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Tokyo Sonata" is a masterful exercise in paradoxes: at one and the same time comical and melancholy, despairing and exultant, nihilistic and regenerative.

Take piano lessons with David at [email protected]

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