From Japan, “Tokyo Sonata” tackles the difficulties and emotional setbacks of unemployment. This is a purposely slow-moving, moody film that focuses on good people having a rough time.
As timely a film as you’ll find playing at any theater today, “Tokyo Sonata,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival a year ago, tackles the difficulties and emotional setbacks of unemployment, and how it affects family life in contemporary Japan.
Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) has probably been an administrative director at a successful medical equipment company for as long as he can remember. But when downsizing hits, he’s out of a job. Too proud to tell his wife and kids, he puts on a suit every morning, then heads out the door – not to work, but to the unemployment office, as well as to a free food line for others who are also dealing with some bad luck.
Sasaki likely already had enough trouble at home without this new development. His jobless teenage son doesn’t seem to be thinking of the future, hardly communicates with anyone else in the family, and is usually only home to sleep. His young grade school son is constantly in trouble with his teachers. His wife appears complacent, but there’s not much connection between them anymore.
The young son wants piano lessons, but dad says absolutely not, with no explanation. Mom says they need a new stove, but decides it can wait till her husband gets his annual bonus which, of course, is not coming. The film presents us with a picture of a man who’s being torn up on the inside, but unable to do or say anything about it.
The depressing atmosphere set by director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, best known for popular but grisly horror films such as “Pulse” and “The Cure,” is added to by exterior scenes of gray desolation and by using ambient street sounds or the uncomfortably loud ticking of a clock instead of a musical soundtrack throughout most of the film.
There’s also his inclusion of endless lines of desperate people waiting and waiting – usually to get some of that free food or find out that the only job available involves working all night at a considerable cut in pay. There are even, seen in the distance, long lines of traffic on the highways. Everyone is waiting, waiting, waiting.
But the story always comes back to the family dynamic, and the fact that all four members are reduced to lying and living a kind of secret life that they’re not willing to share with each other. Whenever anyone is home together at mealtime, there’s much clicking of chopsticks, but rarely any talking. It’s, in a way, a horror film for our times.
But Kurosawa, who also wrote the script, based on his own novel, manages to toss some lightness into the mix. The young son, Kenji, finds an inventive way to get piano lessons; older brother Takashi develops a plan that might get him out of his straights; dad bumps into an old high school pal, who is also out of work, so some commiserating is in order. Only mom is left reeling, knowing that something is wrong, but unable to figure out what.
But those bright moments are fleeting. It’s hard to see any light at the end of this family’s tunnel of trouble. Even the people at the edges of their orbit – Sasaki’s friend, Kenji’s piano teacher – are fraught with personal problems.
This is a purposely slow-moving, moody film that focuses on good people having a rough time. Frustrations lead to physical actions that, in turn, lead to ever-growing unhappiness.
Yet the script also offers some quirky turns late in the film that provide some much-needed hope for the characters and for viewers. Kurosawa’s decision to start jumping around in time is momentarily disconcerting, and eventually gets into some almost whimsical territory. The loose plotting eventually turns into a meditation about people wondering how to start over, to give things another go. Who knows, way down at the end of that long, long tunnel, there might even be some light.
TOKYO SONATA (PG-13) Cast includes Teruyuki Kagawa. Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa.