Tokyo Sonata – トウキョウソナタ
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Cast: Teruyuki Kagawa (香川照之), Kyoko Koizumi (小泉今日子), Yu Koyanagi (小柳友), Inowaki Kai (井之脇海), Koji Yakusho
Tokyo Sonata is visually simple yet an overall thematic gut punch. Eschewing his trademark motifs of supernatural occurrences as metaphors for social ills, Kurosawa boils down the complex issues surrounding societal breakdown to its most basic unit – the family. After Ryusuke Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) loses his job, how can he just willy nilly tell his family about it? His subsequent shame and secrecy threatens to destroy all that he has worked for and carve a permanent rift between himself and his wife and children. The result is a film that is emblematic of a society that puts an unhealthy amount of pressure on individuals to succeed in a strict education system and highly specialized, inflexible jobs. This may not be Kurosawa’s most shocking film, but it is his most relevant and perhaps most important one.
Ryusuke works as the Director of Administration for a health care technology company. When the company decides to outsource his department overseas, he is left with the realization that he offers nothing else experience-wise and is therefore let go. It’s not something he can tell his wife so easily, but his coming home early is not symptomatic of a person with a job. Meanwhile, his personal crisis threatens to further derail the already shaky relationship he has with his two sons, Takashi and Kenji (Yu Koyanagi and Inowaki Kai), both with their own ambitions to which he stubbornly refuses to consent. Takashi wants to join the American military under a new provision that lets foreign nationals enlist and Kenji is a piano prodigy who goes so far as to dig a broken down keyboard out of a trash heap in order to practice. Ryusuke’s attempts to secure a job that pays as much as his previous position prove damn near impossible, and he quickly realizes that if he’s literally going to survive, he’s going to have to accept what is offered to him through unemployment services and somehow make amends with his family.
What makes this film so significant is the real-life plight of Japanese salarymen, warriors of the business world who work ridiculously long hours to support their families, pay their mortgages, and maintain a sense of self worth. Ryusuke is, in many ways, the quintessential salarayman, slightly hyperbolized to make a stirring point. He does not communicate well with his wife and sons and seems to float through life rather aimlessly, with little motivation to keep going. As an example of the family’s inability to communicate, conversations between members are often punctuated by passing trains on the nearby rails. This is not a result of poor pacing or dialogue reading by the actors, but emblematic of the characters’ isolated nature. It is within this uniquely Japanese context that Kurosawa places his film, and it sets the dominoes falling in a series of setbacks and crises. Take a look here as Ryusuke contemplates his situation with the help of his also-unemployed friend, Kurosu:
Anyone familiar with Kurosawa’s work knows that this will not end in Hollywood fantasy fashion, with the hero miraculously landing a phenomenal job, but in a more realistic manner. Now I hesitate to use the word realistic, but I do not use it here in its typical definition, because obviously Tokyo Sonata is a film that contains a great amount of symbolism. Arguing objective reality is therefore a moot point. The realism comes in the very human themes of honesty and acceptance. Whereas Pulse saw humanity making very poor choices with devastating outcomes, Tokyo Sonata sees humanity as equally flawed yet capable of survival through sacrifice. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Ryusuke’s sons will not adhere to his rigid family expectations (Kenji even goes so far as to use his lunch money to pay for piano lessons), so he must change, just as the old guard must accept the younger generation’s refusal to adhere to the same, age old cultural expectations.
Tokyo Sonata is indeed a major entry in Kurosawa’s impressive resume. The cast is exceptional, most notably Kyoko Koizumi. During the scene in which her son Takashi comes home from fighting in Afghanistan, she showcases her power as an actress by infusing her matriarchal character with a strong love for her family and her home. Adding to the film’s power is the minimalist score throughout which paints a portrait of quiet destruction, only to be surpassed at the end by a virtuoso piano performance from Kenji. I was reading a review of this film from a user on IMDB who called it one of Kurosawa’s weaker films, summarizing it as a film in which a typical family falls apart under “the pressure of greed,” and it struck me – this couldn’t be further from the truth. Greed plays no part in the family’s dysfunctional nature. What you have is turmoil based on selfishness and a stubborn adherence to tradition. Ryusuke’s job is, for him, a status symbol and a measure of his worth as a man in what is still a very patriarchal society, and he is unable to tell his wife of his getting fired due to the shame it would bring him. This conflict between the traditional Japanese samurai code and a modern form of hyper-capitalism is played to the extreme when Ryusuke takes a job as a janitor in a department store, hired to clean up every manner of spills and messes in the shopping areas and human waste in the bathrooms to his ultimate shame. The film’s final scenes, in which Ryusuke suffers a sort of nervous breakdown and his wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) is kidnapped by a thief (played by Koji Yakusho), represent choice – to destroy the family or strengthen it through sacrifice. While firmly rooted in Japanese culture (commenting on everything from unemployed salarymen hangouts to suicide by hydrogen sulfide gas), Tokyo Sonata is ultimately a lesson in life for all who watch it, a lesson which is illustrated by Takashi’s very blunt yet poignant reason for wanting to enlist in the military. I’ll give you a hint – it isn’t to fight or kill.
This film is highly recommended. Also check out the following articles on terrible trends within Japanese society to get a sense of just how important this film is.