The Plot: Tokyo Sonata tells the story of a family on the verge of crisis. The father figure has just been laid off from his job which has outsourced the majority of their positions to China, their eldest son is never at home any more and the youngest son has an incident at school. When passing along a profane book during class, his teacher stands him up and confronts him about it. He doesn’t believe the young man when he says its not his, so the son fires back at the teacher and points out the fact that he saw him reading a pornographic comic on the train just the day before. This sends the classroom into revolt as the students no longer feel the need to respect his authority. The son feels immense regret and never intended for the situation to come about, but the damage has been done. Meanwhile the father figure is out wandering in free-food lines during the day and visiting the unemployment office on a daily basis trying to find work. Keeping the secret from his wife and children is tearing him apart but he makes friends with another old classmate who is in the same position. Together they try to keep up the appearance of working every day while drawing unemployment and severance pay. The mother figure has recently acquired her driver’s license and desperately seeks attention from her husband or the world. She wants a car, something fast and showy so she can get out into the world for herself feeling her days as a stay at home mother are diminishing. What will happen to this family in this new Tokyo?

The Review
I like to think that I’ve been flying the Kiyoshi Kurosawa flag for quite some time now. Although, with the release of Cure I think almost any critic that saw it immediately knew we were dealing with a master filmmaker. Still, it’s unfortunate that his name didn’t immediately take off after that movie. Years passed and with the popularity of Tadanobu Asano it seems, Bright Future took off as another well known feature of his here in the states but there’s just so much more to this man’s output. He is without question one of the most consistently breathtaking filmmakers out there. No matter the genre, no matter how basic a story may seem the man knows how to manipulate his audience. He takes the most average of story structures and adds this strange flare and fascination inside of them that you’re drawn inside of the story and before you know it, you’re feeling the movie. Few artists can provoke these kinds of reactions and I think Kurosawa is a master of making his audience feel his movies. Every time I go into one of his movies, I know that by the final shot I am going to have this feeling of pressure on my chest. Many of his films truly do provoke a physical reaction from me when I first watch them and Tokyo Sonata is just another in a long line.

After the credits finally rolled and the silence filled the room during those end credits, I could feel the grin on my face from ear to ear. Kiyoshi Kurosawa has done it again and this time he delivers his most human effort yet. When I first got wind that his latest was going to be a very straight familial drama, I just thought “oh well, just another thing for him to do well”, but in a lot of ways its as if it’s the perfect format for him to work in. He’s able to take these characters he so often creates, that you care so much about and he delves them into this very real world with these very real issues that confound them. Tokyo Sonata delivers emphatically over its two hour timespan and develops these incredibly three dimensional characters to the point where I personally was fully absorbed in the film itself. Sitting back, even though watching it on the small screen, all I could focus on was this story. This little story that pops off the screen in such a huge manner. Kurosawa floods the film with characterization and provokes some truly monumental performances. Perhaps some of the best acting I’ve ever really noticed in a Japanese film to this date.

From the most basic of characters up to the main cast, everyone is just so very good here. Even the school teacher, who’s role isn’t exactly a huge one, is so brilliant in his time on screen. Every one in the cast really gave their all for their project and it shows. The standout of the cast for me has to be Teruyuki Kagawa the father figure Ryuhei Sasaki who goes through so many emotional changes throughout the movie and remains so sympathetic. Truly remarkable. The way both he and the film starts somewhat light in the way it deals with the loss of his job, but then everything slowly becomes darker as the realization sets in that this situation isn’t one to be trapped in for a long period of time. There’s this really emotional moment that comes along when we lose a certain character, one who doesn’t really have a huge role, but is still felt so passionately. If you have seen it, you’ll know who I am referring to but if you haven’t, come back after the movie. That sequence made me sit back and just say ‘wow’. To take a rather small character and flesh him out in such a way, relate him to the parable of our own story here in such a direct way, that the passing of this character effects our own viewing… I am just so often left speechless by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, but I think his treatment of his characters and the performances he manages to get out of his cast with this movie is the real story here.

Getting back to the father figure, his emotional transformation throughout the movie is spellbinding. The way Kurosawa gets inside of this character’s head and allows us to see exactly what is happening inside of this family from all directions. There’s a sequence in the movie where our father figure denies his son piano lessons on the basis of it just being a whim, and although Kurosawa never comes out and points us in the direction, we still know the real reason he refuses it is due to financial reasons. He can’t let on to this for his wife or children’s sake, but as the movie goes along and times become more and more desperate we see this rock solid father figure chisel away and become less and less of himself. Doing things he ordinarily wouldn’t do. I just think that it’s amazing that despite everything that happens, it’s still so crystal clear why this character is still respectable and sympathetic. He is misunderstood, but so is everyone in the family circle. From the mother who wants to get out and not feel so trapped, to the eldest son who wants to join the American military and the youngest son who feels so passionate about music but feels forced to hide it from his entire family. There’s some really heartbreaking drama caught in Tokyo Sonata but at the center of it all is the need and love for family.

The look of Tokyo Sonata is an interesting mix. Although usually with Kurosawa you can expect a lot of abandoned or decrepit looking buildings, small cramped little apartments or green outdoor areas. Tokyo Sonata is a really different kind of beast however, with a very open and large home that our characters live within. Really clean and sterile office buildings. The only real touches of traditional Kurosawa are the scenes that take place on the free lunch line, which is trash littered and not so pretty. That or the massive line all the way down a stairwell that makes up the unemployment office. Kurosawa paints every part of Tokyo as this cramped breeding ground of either those on their way to work or looking for their own employment. There are some amazing shots of what look like hundreds of people walking in one direction away from a living division towards what we assume to be the business district. The streets are literally packed with people heading to work, while our characters are just lost somewhere in the mix. There’s a great deal of subtext to be found here about modern Japan, commercialism and the level of importance placed on work instead of family, but that’s another paragraph to itself.

The Conclusion
From my initial hearing-about the project all the way through to seeing the movie, I was continually reminded of Toshiaki Toyoda’s equally brilliant Hanging Garden. If you’re familiar with that movie then you just have to see Tokyo Sonata. Both films kind of show the destruction of the Japanese family unit as well as their resurrection. Kurosawa’s film may be one of the best of his impressive career and I found myself amazed at every turn in its wonderful story. An absolute must see and an unquestionable five out of five for me. Check it out ASAP, it’s available from Eureka! DVD.