Tokyo Sonata

Tokyo Sonata


Reviewed by: Emma Slawinski

Tokyo Sonata marks a departure from the unconventional, but highly regarded horror films that have made director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s career. Old habits obviously die hard, though, because he has carried over some of the trademarks of the genre. This foray into the family drama - itself a staple of Japanese cinema with a distinguished list of exponents - is tinged with an unmistakable notes of suspense and menace, which prove surprisingly effective.

It all starts with Ryuhei Sasaki, a salaryman and family man, losing his job. Unable to wholly confront the situation, he puts on a charade at home, continuing to dress for work and go out in the mornings as if nothing was wrong. His family are in the dark, his wife and sons all preoccupied with their own issues. Kenji, the youngest, is causing problems at school and develops a secret obsession with learning to play the piano. His older brother Takashi decides he wants to join the army and serve in Iraq. Wife Megumi exists in an uncomfortably numb domestic bubble, trying to keep the peace. With these tensions simmering away, Kurosawa throws an uninvited guest into the mix (Koji Yakusho – Memoirs Of A Geisha, Babel), to turn mild dysfunction into utter chaos.

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Without appearing too didactic, Kurosawa has created a film that pairs cinematic vision with shrewd social commentary, comparable to canonic films like the better-known Kurosawa’s Ikiru, or Ozu’s Equinox Flower. Sasaki is an old-school patriarch, not far removed from the protagonists of these older dramas. He is a casualty of a big shift in work and family culture. He joined his company presuming his job was for life, but is scuppered by a brutal new dawn of outsourcing, jargon and middle-managers half his age. Grilled by one of these whippersnappers at a job interview, Sasaki struggles to prove that there is something he can do, and as a last resort sings karaoke, abysmally, the view of Tokyo from the skyscraper window a taunting reminder of both what was promised and taken for granted, and the unforgiving concrete jungle that he now treads every day hoping for a break.

Kagawa’s interpretation of Sasaki is pitch perfect, his dejection and frustration palpable, and occasionally erupting into a cowardly sort of aggression. Inowaki must also be praised for his fresh and convincing performance as the secretive, gifted Kenji. Yakusho, who will be the most familiar to western viewers, is undoubtedly a heavyweight, but seems rather oddly employed as the late-coming intruder into the Sasaki household.

Considering each aspect individually, this is a picture of outstanding quality, from the strong cast to the photography and haunting soundtrack to the acute character studies. It’s also a portrait of a city – Tokyo itself is richly characterised and shown from unfamiliar angles. That’s not to say that Kurosawa pulls it off completely when the film is taken as a whole. The conflict within the family demands some kind of resolution, but he staggers and defers the finale in such a way as to lose both pace and the strong empathetic current that has been running through. Put bluntly, it’s too long; there are scenes that needn’t linger so much, others that might well have been cut. But even with these reservations, there is no denying that Tokyo Sonata is both beautiful and thought-provoking. Despite a few false notes, there is plenty here to enjoy.

Reviewed on: 03 Jan 2009
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A Tokyo salaryman loses his job and tries to conceal it from his already dysfunctional family.
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Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Writer: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Max Mannix, Sachiko Tanaka

Starring: Teruyuki Kagawa, Kyoko Koizumi, Kai Inowaki, Yu Koyanagi, Koji Yakusho

Year: 2008

Runtime: 119 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: Japan, Netherlands, Hong Kong

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