Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008)

Yu Koyanagi and Kyoko Koizumi in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata (2008).

Tokyo Sonata starts off with an apocalypse on a personal level for office worker Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) when the department he is head of is downsized and moved to China. His way of dealing with it is by not telling his wife (Kyoko Koizumi) and children so as to not lose his authority as patriarch of the family, pretending to go to work each day when he’s really going to an unemployment office and homeless shelters to get a free meal together with an old friend from school, Kurosu (Kanji Tsuda), who’s also unemployed.

Kurosu has made hiding that he’s unemployed into an art, always carrying around a briefcase, wearing a suit, having set his phone to ring five times every hour and having fake conversations on it and going so far as to invite Sasaki for a family dinner and scolding him at the table over some imaginary work related business. Kurosu also has a theory that the only way to find a way out and start over is to embrace the situation and accept who you are, but that not many people dare to do so. Instead they keep standing in line with the poor and homeless, wearing their suits thinking, hoping, that it will set them apart from the rest.

In Sasaki’s family, things are already out of his control, but he’s too busy keeping up appearances to realize it. The two children in the family are both taking different paths from their father, the elder one, Takashi (Yu Koyanagi), is joining the American army forces and the younger, Kenji (Kai Inowaki), having trouble in school, actually bullying a teacher when he feels unfairly treated. The teacher’s solution is “If you ignore me, I’ll ignore you.” When Kenji wants to take piano lessons, Ryuhei takes the opportunity to show that he is still in charge by saying “No way!” while the real problem probably is the cost. Even when Kenji pockets his lunch money to pay for the piano lessons and it turns out that he’s a child prodigy does his father acknowledge him, instead he says “How could our child be a prodigy?” and what awaits Kenji is a beating in another desperate attempt from Ryuhei to prove that he is still the man in the house even though he doesn’t have a job. In fact everyone except Ryuhei is somewhat successfull, the wife, Megumi, has recently gotten her drivers license and as it turns out that might be her key to starting over, Kenji decides that he wants to play piano and is very good at it, even Takashi finds his calling by joining the military. It’s only Ryuhei who desperately clings to the past.

At the same time as Ryuhei isn’t a very sympathetic person, it’s easy to identify with him, the hopelessness of standing in line at the unemployment office, the shame of facing one’s family and friends after being laid off, the anger and resentment from having to jump through hoops at interviews for jobs that are far below your previous one and the loss and frustration of not being in the position you once were, in society as well as at home. And I think this is Tokyo Sonata’s strongest point. Compared to earlier films by Kiyoshi Kurosuwa it might lack in atmosphere and sense of pending doom, but in these times of financial crisis and skyrocketing unemployment it doesn’t get much scarier than this.

After Kurosu tells Sasaki about his theory, he acceptingly joins the ranks of the poor and unemployed, walking along with them to the next free meal, but when Sasaki goes to visit him at home, he finds out that Kurosu’s way out was to commit suicide by poisoning himself and his wife, taking her with him. These scenes are where it’s easiest to recognize Tokyo Sonata as a Kiyoshi Kurosuwa film, seeing Kurosu fall in with the ghost like crowd and floating away, the multi-tiered freeway seen after Kurosu’s suicide, making the city look like a ghost town despite all the cars. There is no life, just people fitting into their roles, whatever they may be.

When Megumi is asked by Takashi why she doesn’t divorce Ryuhei, she answers that it isn’t so bad playing the mom role, but still when she puts her hands in the air so that Ryuhei can help her up off of the couch, he’s already gone and she asks for someone to help her, anyone. She too needs a push to start over herself. And the help comes in the form of a burglar (Koji Yakusho) in a strange twist that doesn’t really mesh with the rest of the film. It takes a sudden turn into comedy and theatrical overacting from Yakusho as his failed locksmith turned burglar kidnaps Megumi and makes her drive his stolen getaway car. When they stop at a mall so Megumi can use the restroom she runs into Ryuhei who is working there as a janitor, but she still doesn’t say anything and returns to her kidnapper. They drive as far as the road will go and spends the night in a shed at a beach. When Megumi wakes up in the morning the burglar is gone, the only thing left being tiretracks headed straight into the ocean. Refusing a dead end, Megumi returns home but things seem to have change, everything is out in the open now about Ryuhei’s job situation and everything else.

During all of this, Ryuhei has found an envelope full of money in a restroom stall. He takes it and heads home on foot but is hit by a car and passes out in the gutter covered with trash. When he wakes up he turns the money in at a police station and heads home, deciding to start over himself, but only after hitting absolute rock bottom. For the other characters the fall wasn’t as hard since they were more aware of the roles they were playing and their ability to accept the situation they were in and adapt to it. Only Ryuhei who was foolishly clinging to his old ways had to reach the bottom before he could start over.

The ending does offer hope, not unlike many other films by Kurosawa, his apocalypses warrants change rather than total destruction. When Kenji auditions for a music school, Ryuhei and Megumi are there to watch and when Kenji has finished playing they all leave together, hopefully to a happier life.