Tokyo Sonata, released in 2008, takes on two concerns that weigh heavily on the minds of most Americans: mass layoffs and war in the Middle East. While it may be difficult to suppress the thought that the Japanese have again come up with a more efficient and economical version of something Americans find familiar, in the hands of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, best known for his horror films, these subjects are handled with both wry detachment and ultimately a hard won poignancy. Kurosawa proves that he is just as artful at making anxiety films as he is at directing horror movies.
The film deals with the crises that befall the Sasaki family after the father, Ryuhei, loses his cushy administrative post in a large corporation because of outsourcing. At the beginning of the film, the head of the company is shown being introduced to a young Chinese woman who speaks fluent Japanese. A broad smile crosses his face when he is told that shifting the administrative operations of the firm offshore will enable him to hire three employees at the salary of a single Japanese employee. Shocked and bewildered, Ryuhei is too ashamed to reveal to his family that he has been laid off. Every morning he leaves the house dressed in his coat and tie, and spends his days bouncing between the unemployment office and various parks in the city where the homeless gather for free lunches and other jobless salarymen loll about in their suits. Ryuhei meets a friend from high school, Kurosu, who has also lost his job, but who has devised strategies to indicate to the outside world that he is still gainfully employed – for example, he has programmed his mobile phone to ring every 20 minutes, so that he can hold imaginary conversations with his boss.
The sudden loss of Ryuhei’s middle class status and professional identity coincides with events that conspire to expose the emptiness of his authority as a father. His younger son, Kenji, unintentionally deprives his primary school teacher of his ability to control the classroom when the teacher wrongfully accuses him of bringing a manga into the classroom. The boy defends himself by telling the teacher that he saw him reading a porn manga on the subway, leading his classmates to squeal with delight and take over the classroom. Dismayed by the consequences of his act, Kenji tries to escape the situation by taking piano lessons in secret. The older son, Takashi, appears to be a prototypical alienated youth, staying away from home all night and working a meaningless job handing out packets of tissues with advertisements on them. Fed up with the fact that his life is going nowhere, he signs up with the US military for service in Iraq.
Kurosawa carries out a delicate balancing act between the quirky and the unsettling. It is unclear whether Kenji is eager to learn the piano, paying for lessons with his lunch money, because he loves music or because he is attracted to his teacher. When Takashi defends his decision with the reasoning that since the US is responsible for Japan’s security, and so joining the US military will enable him to protect Japan, a chill emanates from his words that drives home the fact that he is about to take an irrevocable step in his life. If the film does go slightly off-key, it is in the storyline of Megumi, the tactful wife and stalwart mother who knows far more than she lets on. The upheavals in her household drive her to her own breaking point, which, thankfully, does not play out as melodramatically as it might have. Indeed, the somewhat farfetched turn of events in the final third of the film does generate a precious scene in which the secret life of the husband and wife do finally converge: it is only during a hostage drama that Megumi and Ryuhei are able to meet outside the artificial and routinized space of their home.
Though many of the scenes in the film have an undercurrent of humor, nevertheless the rumblings of catastrophe press in on the family from every direction. Kurosawa’s detached and minimalist style is quite well-suited to evoking the specters of ominous events that wait just at the edge of middle class stability. What I also find marvelous about Tokyo Sonata is how it preserves the mystery of its characters even as they undergo the various ordeals that force them to reveal who they are and what they are made of. One of the delights of the film is that it never reveals whether Ryuhei was even competent at the job from which he was let go. An interview for a rare office job plays out like a bad dream in which it dawns upon the dreamer that he or she is naked. But instead of nakedness being the source of humiliation, Ryuhei mentions his skills at karaoke, and is then asked to sing by an arrogant interviewer, who has dyed hair and is barely older than his own son.
It’s rare, perhaps unimaginable today, for a Hollywood film about downward mobility to conclude in the resigned acceptance of a life of physical labor as one’s lot. Instead, there is a lucky break, whether through supernatural means or not, in which the hero is able to escape such a fate. One thinks of the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life, who comes down to show the hero how miraculous his life has been. Kurosawa’s film is refreshingly devoid of such tricks. There is a remarkable scene in which Ryuhei’s friend Kurosu says that they are all on board a sinking ship, and then promptly joins a column of those rendered superfluous — homeless people and laid-off salarymen in suits — shambling down the streets of Tokyo in a hopeless and endless war of attrition.
But that is not to say that the film denies the audience any consolations. Rather it makes the point that these consolations, to be credible, must be hard won. Kurosawa demonstrates insightfully how difficult it can be to extricate oneself from a life of quiet desperation, especially when that quiet desperation comes with elevated social status, myriad consumer items, and a hefty salary. The Sasaki family picks itself up from the debris and settles into a new life, and even new hopes and dreams. No angel shows up to take things back to how they were before, indeed, the self-knowledge gained by the characters rules out that option as much as their constrained economic circumstances. Instead, there comes at the end a spare and undramatic scene showing an audition at a school for music. The magic comes from Kurosawa simply letting his camera rest on the pianist for the entire time it takes him to play Debussy’s Clair de lune. The path to wisdom, harsh as it was for the Sasakis, proves to be a path to beauty as well.