PRINT March 2009


Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata

Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Tokyo Sonata, 2008, color film in 35 mm, 119 minutes. Production still. Kenji Sasaki (Kai Inowaki).

VENTURING OUTSIDE the paranormal zone that he defined with films such as Cure (1997), Charisma (1999), Pulse (2001), and Doppelganger (2003), Kiyoshi Kurosawa proves himself prescient as ever. Tokyo Sonata (which opens in New York and Los Angeles on March 13) is a visually lyrical, narratively Fassbinderesque examination of a Japanese nuclear family in meltdown due to pressures both external (the downsizing of Japan’s middle-income workforce) and internal (failing codes of masculinity). Kurosawa’s consummate tonal shifts allow the film to move fluidly from analytic realism to hallucinatory subjectivity and back again. Imagine a marriage between The Merchant of Four Seasons and In a Year of 13 Moons.

When his management job is outsourced to China, along with the entire unit he supervised, Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) hides his redundancy from his wife, Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), and their two sons, Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) and Kenji (Kai Inowaki). Pretending to go to work every day, Ryuhei instead joins the lines of the unemployed at the Hello Work center and waits for charity lunches in a barren park abutting one of Tokyo’s ubiquitous construction sites. By chance, Megumi sees her husband eating his free rice and guesses the worst, but she can’t bear to humiliate him by demanding the truth. Lost without the job that defined his identity even as it turned him into an anonymous salaryman, Ryuhei takes out his frustration on his already alienated sons, with arbitrary displays of patriarchal authority. Eighteen-year-old Takashi, despairing of his future in Japan, takes advantage of an obscure (in fact, fictitious) American military program and enlists to fight in Iraq. (It’s the film’s only misstep, a tear in the fabric of reality that Kurosawa has so carefully woven.) Sixth-grader Kenji secretly uses his lunch money to pay for the piano lessons his father refuses him.

Trailer for Tokyo Sonata, 2008.

Toyko Sonata opens inside the Sasaki house. The pages of a newspaper fly, as if in slow motion, across the otherwise orderly, softly lit space, defined by multiple verticals—door and window frames, the slats of the straight-back dining-room chairs. The palette is typical Kurosawa, with its yellow browns, pale greens, blue grays, and occasional hit of burnt orange (primary colors are few and far between). The second shot reveals what has caused the papers to move: An “ill wind” has blown open a door, propelling rain from a sudden downpour onto the polished wood floor. Megumi enters, swiftly closes the door, sops up the water, and then, as if irresistibly drawn to the uncontrollable natural forces outside the supposed safety of the domestic space she is charged with maintaining, opens the door again and peers out into the storm. Much later, a half-mad burglar (Kurosawa alter ego Koji Yakusho) will come through that same entrance, take her hostage, and carry her off to a desolate beach, where, freed from the confines of domesticity, she will make contact with her own desire and find the courage to start again at zero. Luckily, her husband, fleeing the only job he has been able to get—as a janitor at the local shopping mall—will simultaneously experience his own dark night of the soul and be similarly transformed.

Easily the most optimistic of Kurosawa’s movies, most of which end apocalyptically with, at best, a traumatized few staggering toward an inconceivable future, Tokyo Sonata (certainly a reflection on Ozu’s Tokyo Story and perhaps on Hou Hsiao-hsien’s recent homage to it, Café Lumière, both of which deal with the incommensurate value systems of parents and children) suggests a twenty-first-century version of the 1960s injunction to “tune in, turn on, and drop out” (though the family remains in its comfortable if hardly luxurious house). What sustains the Sasakis’ transformation after their solo free falls is not drugs, however, but art, specifically music.

The mystery of the child prodigy is an analogue of the occult forces that have run amok in the director’s previous films. In an early scene, Kenji, on his way home from school, passes a house where a girl is playing the piano, her teacher hovering at her side. At first, one thinks Kenji is attracted by their physical beauty, and perhaps he is, but it is the sound of the piano that captivates him. In the final scene, Kenji tries out for a specialized music school. The auditions take place in a school gym, where rows of folding chairs have been set up to accommodate the audience of parents, teachers, and friends. “He’s so good,” Ryuhei whispers to his wife, as they listen to one of the other applicants. The boy is clearly a virtuoso, but he plays on automatic pilot. Kenji steps up to the piano next. From the first notes he coaxes from the instrument, everyone present is aware they are experiencing music making of a different order. His audition piece is Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” and as the limpid sound of the piano fills the room, the space is transfigured. Kurosawa covers Kenji’s playing of the piece in its entirety in half a dozen simple camera setups, and each time the angle shifts we become more fully aware of the light, the framing, the way the wind ruffles the curtains, the rhythm of our own breathing. We are inside the room, but we are also transported into the space and time of the music. When Kenji finishes, bows to the judges, and leaves with his awed parents, the audience continues to sit, transfixed. They have experienced something that has changed them, at least for the moment, and so, too, have we.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.