Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a filmmaker known for unleashing some pretty dark fare upon the world, including 1997’s intense and creepy “Cure.” And now for something completely different, he gives us “Tokyo Sonata,” a family melodrama focusing largely on economic struggle. It’s like one of those movies you see in a film festival program and decide to pass on it because it sounds like anything but thrilling. But with Kurosawa’s name attached to the film, a curious cinephile can’t help but wonder what trick the man’s up to. Further investigation reveals a cinematic gem.
“Tokyo Sonata” begins with the father of the Sasaki family losing his administration job. Too shamed to reveal to his family what has happened, he returns home that evening and pretends to carry on life as usual. His wife, mama Sasaki is your typical housewife – takes care of their home, prepares meals, dwells in stifling boredom. Their younger son is shown to be a bright little boy with a slight rebellious streak. And their eldest son, late teens, is always off somewhere running around with friends as young men will normally do. It’s a rather boring family setting, but that’s what having a family is all about – you get to be boring together.
The next day father hits the street on the lookout for a job, but interview opportunities are few and far between, so he really just wanders around the city, killing time until he can return home and pretend that he had a nice day at work. This is where the film starts taking an amusing upswing as he runs into an old friend of his who is also wandering about town in a suit, carrying a suitcase and totally unemployed. His friend has mastered the art of giving the illusion of being not only employed but important as well. He kicks down father some useful tips and even ropes him into his little façade.
Meanwhile, we find the younger son bullying one of his teachers at school by pointing out his manga porn tendencies. He also decides to use his lunch money for piano lessons that he believes his parents wouldn’t approve of.
And during the middle of all this, the eldest son finally shows up at home with the news that he’s joining the U.S. military, a move that pleases his parents none too much.
And while everyone is selfishly trapped in their own little worlds, mother gets to field all of their bad attitudes. She has to deal with her husband’s depression and short temper while finding out that her youngest has been skipping school and picking on his teacher while putting up with her eldest’s insistence on moving away to fight for another country. She finds herself falling deeper into a depression, desperate for someone or something to pull her up and out.
I know this all sounds awfully depressing, but it really isn’t. With “Tokyo Sonata,” Kurosawa shows that he has quite the flair for dry humor and peppers this film with just the perfect amount, so as not to lose focus on the urgency of this family’s situation, but also to keep us from sliding into a major bummer.
And so “Tokyo Sonata” continues rolling down hill, gaining speed as the lives of these characters grow ever more dark, finding each family member disembarking from their home and foraging out on their own soul searching adventure. At a running time of two hours, it’s this last act of the film that seems to drag a little bit – there’s only so much you can watch of a person meditating on their life’s mistakes before your yawn reflex kicks in. But all is forgiven once the end credits begin rolling as Kurosawa ties everything up with a completely satisfying, even a little tear jerking, final scene.
In another’s hands, “Tokyo Sonata” probably would’ve been a miserable bore, or perhaps awkwardly goofy to compensate for its bleak subject matter, but this is Kiyoshi Kurosawa breaking out of his normal genre stomping grounds to bring us this calm, quiet look at one family’s meltdown and it’s an enriching experience.