Entering the office one day, Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa), husband and father of two, finds his job thrown to a younger man and his new place at the back of the unemployment line. He goes home and acts as if nothing happened, even helping a fellow severed salaryman with his own charade. Meanwhile, his eldest son (Yu Koyanagi) thinks his best place is in the U.S. Army, serving the Iraq Occupation. On the other hand, his youngest son (Kai Inowaki) takes his lunch money and begins taking piano lessons. Ryuhei approves of neither.
The fourth member of the family is Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), loyal mother and wife. Running errands, Megumi sees her husband waiting in the free-porridge line with an assortment of other unemployed suit-and-ties. She says nothing to her children nor to her husband, even when Ryuhei's repressed, volcanic anger becomes a household hazard. As time goes by, children leaving and husband brooding, her steadfast habit of calling her family to the dinner table becomes more and more unsteady. Yet, it isn't till Ryuhei takes a job as a janitor at a mall that her reality is entirely compromised.
Though it would be easy to ponder Kurosawa's latest as a trip into the disillusionment of our current economy, it has loftier aspirations, with Ryuhei's world deteriorating to a point where he can't even recognize his family. The film could easily be re-titled Ghost World. Though tradition has a lot to do with Tokyo Sonata, it's strange realizing that it's not Japanese tradition that feels endangered so much as Western. The totems of pre-war Japan are nowhere to be found, unless one takes Megumi's obsessive housewife routine as something more intrinsically Japanese than American. Globalization and endangered masculinity abound, and the narrative makes no little business of how Ryuhei's loss of identity mirrors his own country's.
What tradition can be found is upended. Ryuhei's youngest reveals himself as a piano prodigy but any pride his father may have had is eclipsed by his livid reaction to disobedience. The youngest's story straightens out, but Ryuhei and Megumi encounter their breaking points both narratively and psychologically speaking. As father finds a cache of hidden drug money, mother encounters a burglar (Kôji Yakusho, Kurosawa's dependable leading man of choice) who kidnaps her, threatens her, and is then asked to run away with her.
If there's a major complaint to be made about Sonata, it is that, like 2007's Retribution, the director doesn't fully embrace the tone of his film. In his best work (Pulse, Cure), Kurosawa blends exclamatory scenes with a sustained mood (the plane engulfed in flames flying overhead in Pulse). Here, digressions into shock and horror disrupt the smoldering drama, but this may be the point. These two diversions into criminal theatrics not only break Ryuhei and Megumi's fragile mindset, but also the viewer's concepts. Though punctuated by an optimistic, gorgeous coda, it would seem Kurosawa's "detour" is meant to be just as unnerving as his J-horror freak-outs.
Aka Tôkyô sonata.
Run time: 120 mins
In Theaters: Saturday 27th September 2008
Box Office USA: $0.1M
Distributed by: Regent Releasing
Production compaines: Django Film
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Fresh: 79 Rotten: 5
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Producer: Wouter Barendrecht, Yukie Kito
Screenwriter: Sachiko Tanaka, Max Mannix, Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring: Teruyuki Kagawa as Ryuhei Sasaki, Kyôko Koizumi as Megumi Sasaki, Yû Koyanagi as Takashi Sasaki, Kai Inowaki as Kenji Sasaki