Japanese horror movies boomed in the wake of "Ringu" (The Ring, 1998). Kiyoshi Kurosawa (not related to Akira) flourished in that era with his reputation as the film-maker of the most original subtle and dreamy horror films. A killer hypnotist in 1997's "Cure", a haunted website in 2000's "Pulse" (not the shoddy Hollywood remake) and a deadly jelly fish in 2003's "Bright Future." With his 2008 movie "Tokyo Sonata", Kurosawa has turned his attention to a more commonplace horror. The nightmare rendering director has eventually turned his camera upon the real horror -- known as 'downsizing.'
"Tokyo Sonata" won a jury prize at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. The movie is an examination of hard times and also a fierce satire on what happens to the working-class people's life when the worst happens, how easily they can go into denial. The film hints that somehow denial has been bred into us by our former lives of prosperity and success. Japan -- referred as the paragon of stability -- under an recession no longer operates by familiar rules. The downsizing makes the characters seem trapped by forces that are unseen, unstoppable and hard to understand.
Ryuhei Sasaki (Terayuki Kagawa) is an loyal and energetic corporate man, who works in the administration department. He is a typical working-class man -- with a dark-suit and a safe but dull job, he plays the unerring provider at home. One day, he is cast adrift from the company, his job is outsourced to China. As a family man, he thrives on authority and respect from his family. Now that his job has disappeared, Where does his sureness come from now? and Who is he now?
Shame is one of the powerful emotion and so Ryuhei hides his situation from wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), continues to leave the house every day in business attire. He queues up in the unemployment office, at the soup kitchen and visits library with an out-of-work acquaintance (a high school friend). The unemployment causes more frustration and rage in Ryuhei, which he takes out on his two sons. The elder son, Takashi (Yu Koyanangi) enlists himself in the U.S. military and is cast out from the household.
The younger son Kenji (Inowaki Kai) takes piano lesson, in spite of his father's dissent (Kenji uses the lunch money for the lesson). He is considered to be a child prodigy and when Ryuhei discovers a letter recommending that Kenji attend a school for gifted musicians, he is shoved down the stairs for disobeying his father. The household tension builds up to a threshold, which leads Megumi to revolt and from then on, the movie goes in surprising and strange directions.
The plot may remind Laurent Cantet's 2001 classic, "Time Out," but the tone here is lighter and also deals with the unspoken mystery of familiar bonds. Director Kurosawa doesn't stick to conventions. The appearance of a burglar (Koji Yakusho) in the last act sends the movie in a whole other direction. The shifts in the screenplay looks incompatible at times, but Kurosawa's control of the tone and his skillful ability to provoke feelings of both empathy and uneasy give "Tokyo Sonata" a sense of coherence despite all the chaos.
Some of the sequences might stay with you after watching this engaging fable: An unemployed man who has programmed his cell to ring regularly so he will look busy to others; Takashi bidding farewell to his mother after enlisting as a soldier; lyrical note scored to Kenji's recital; homeless people and unemployed men in suits standing in a queue, waiting to be fed cups of porridge.
Kagawa as Ryuhei Sasaki is perfect as the both pitiful and courageous family man. He accuses his younger son for lying, where he is too alienated from himself to even see the irony in that. Koizumi gives a heart-wrenching performance as Megumi. Kurosawa pushes her character slowly to the edge, but more gently. When her husband comes late, she stretches out her arms and calls for him to help her up from the sofa. But he remains oblivious to her call and leaves the room. The camera stays on her for a moment and freezes an exquisitely painful moment. She lives in a emotional prison, where she cannot protect either of her sons from violence. At first, she daydreams of buying a car, which is later replaced by nightmares about Takashi. The brooding young boy Kai as Kenji gives a topnotch performance.
"Tokyo Sonata" shows how men put their jobs at the center of their identities and suffer when those things disappear. Although there is a strange sense of disquiet throughout the movie, the final image of the family's restored integrity has a beauty and hope. It should be watched for its multidimensional script and for its reorganized traditional understandings of work and family life in Japan.
Tokyo Sonata -- IMDb