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Tokyo Sonata Review

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by AVForums Jun 17, 2009

    Tokyo Sonata Review

    'Tokyo Sonata' was released in 2008 and was directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who also penned the screenplay. It recently won the Best Film award at the Asian Movie Awards and also picked up the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes. Kurosawa is traditionally known for his J-horrors such as 'Kairo', 'Cure' and 'Sakebi'. When I heard of 'Sonata' and the accolades it had received I was very interested to see how Kurosawa would deal with such unfamiliar source material (this movie being a family orientated drama). Kurosawa has assembled a strong cast for this presentation; it seems that he was taking no chances for his “comeback” movie. Teruyuki Kagawa ('Hero') plays Ryuhei Sasaki; Kyoko Koizumi ('Gu-Gu The Cat') plays Megumi Sasaki; Yu Koyanagi plays Takashi Sasaki and Inowaki Kai plays Kenji Sasaki.

    'Sonata' opens with an average man, Ryuhei Sasaki, losing his job as administrative supervisor at a Japanese firm whom he has loyally served for years. Disgraced and not willing to admit his recent “down-sizing” to his family, Ryuhei joins the ever increasing numbers of Japanese workers facing unemployment. He returns home to his family every day with a forced smile, feigning tiredness due to another long day in his non-existent job. During the daytime he roams the streets and queues at the dole office to see if there are any jobs suitable for a man of his experience. Receiving free food from a hospice but wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, its Ryuhei's deep seated honour which prevents him from exposing this reality to his wife and family. Outside the hospice Ryuhei bumps into an old school friend (Kurosu), who appears to be doing quite well for himself. After a few moments conversation, he too admits that he has been downsized and has been seeking employment for three or so months. Kurosu is in fact a pro at the art of employment deception and imparts some top tips to his old friend, such as setting his phone to ring several times an hour to appear busy! Ryuhei is impressed with his friends deviousness and takes a few notes.

    In the Sasaki homestead things slowly begin to unravel, much like the collapsing Japanese economy. The shame over his unemployment puts a distinct strain on Ryuhei's life. His wife, Megumi, plays the part of traditional Japanese wife and manages the families' budget and performs cooking /cleaning duties. It's obvious that Megumi suspects that something is the matter with her husband but she chooses to continue the charade of perfect family life for the sake of their two children (and possibly for her own sanity). Their eldest son, Takashi (who is about seventeen or so), is the only one who seems to realise that their family has been rotting in its own stagnant routine and nothing will change. He is an absentee son and prefers to stay out late in the company of his friends rather than spend time at home. He plans on joining the American Army to fight for a country where he feels, like many more before him, his ideals can be realised. One gets the distinct impression that any respect that this young man has for his father is long gone. His younger brother, Kenji, also has his own frustrations which begin to surface at school. During class he is accused of reading Manga, which is untrue (he was merely passing along for someone else). As punishment his teacher makes him stand at the back of the room. Kenji announces that this treatment is grossly unfair and drops the bombshell that he saw his teacher reading Manga porn on the subway! Searching for a distraction and/or a creative outlet for his feelings (he is an angst ridden teenager after all!), he happens across a piano school on his way home and decides that he would like to take some lessons.

    It's this simple request which is the straw that broke the camel's back in the Sasaki household. Under pressure from his wife and Kenji to pay for piano lessons, Ryuhei vehemently refuses. Both Kenji and Megumi are surprised at Ryuhei's over the top reaction to their simple request. Not to be dissuaded Kenji uses his lunch money to pay for piano lessons and uses a broken keyboard (which he found in the trash) to practice at home. Kenji's piano teacher is very impressed with the young man's talents and strongly believes that he may be a prodigy. She communicates her thoughts to Kenji's parents via a scholarship application (for Kenji) and an accompanying letter.

    Ryuhei, now working as a lowly cleaner in a shopping mall (which is the only job he could get), sees this scholarship application as a direct breach of his authority. Venting his frustration over his current job and also his agitation with his eldest son's request to join the American Army (which he can nothing about), he beats Kenji and accosts his wife over the scholarship application. At this point the ticking time bomb detonates right at the heart of the Sasaki family and sparks off a number of events which will make or break their delicate microcosm. All four Sasaki's embark on a mini-adventure and get themselves into some semi-perilous situations. They all have had enough of their restricted existence and, under the unusual circumstances sparked by Ryuhei's unemployment, seek to selfishly change their own lives for the better and to start over in life. The remainder of the presentation follows each member of the Sakasi family to see whether the healing power of the family unit really is strong enough to overcome the pains and woes of the individuals (with a satisfying prologue set four months after these events take place).

    'Tokyo Sonata' is an unusual movie in that it strives so much for realism that it almost ends up being mundane.......almost. The pace is just quick enough to ensure that none of the more passive scenes grow tiresome; just enough time is granted to the audience to reflect without growing bored. The situation that this average family finds themselves in is a snapshot of the difficulties that many families are facing at present in the modern world. With the pride that is instilled in the older Japanese generations, Ryuhei finds it almost impossible to admit defeat to his family. As the alpha male, its Ryuhei's responsibility to act as the sole breadwinner and when he loses his job it's his pride which prevents him from turning to his family for help. With increasing frustration over his current situation, which forced him to take a low paying cleaners job, it's his family who bears the brunt of Ryuhei's suffocating feelings of helplessness. It's almost like watching a slow motion train wreck as every member of the Sasaki tribe has a mini revelation at the end of the movie. The crumble of the Sasakis' is a reflection of the decline the Japanese economy, where the recession is raging. There are some strong themes running throughout the presentation, such as pride and greed, all of which are skilfully portrayed by the cast and captured by Kurosawa. The focus appears to be on authority (and how easily it can be lost/abused), which is very important in Japanese culture. Without authority control is lost, be that in the classroom, in the home or in government office. With authority gone, rebellion and chaos are never far behind. It's this point which Kurosawa captures so beautifully in his latest offering, and it's a universal theme which all audiences can identify with.

    The camera work and excellent direction from Kurosawa also helps to relieve some of the more passive scenes, during which the audience merely observes the Sasaki's performing normal, unexciting daily tasks such as vacuuming or eating dinner. Kurosawa places the viewer in a semi-concealed spot, close enough to the Sasaki's to eavesdrop on their conversation; the audience is spying on the Sasakis, seeing all sides of the story. The camera often lingers in total silence with the face of one of the main characters in shot. It's at these times that the merest change of expression can speak volumes - it's these moments which are more important than spoken words in some of the scenes. Kurosawa has produced an immensely intimate and fragile piece in 'Tokyo Sonata', a Faberge egg of the silver screen; the recital scene at the close of the movie being the most striking example. The beauty of this piece is accentuated by the many scenic shots of the Japanese countryside and cities. The cast are very strong and never once make an error with the incredibly delicate source material. I was very impressed with Kyoko Koizumi and Teruyuki Kagawa who at many times have to convey emotions and feelings with only minimal facial expression, a feat that they both pull off admirably. Young Inowaki Kai also turns out a noteworthy performance as Kenji in this, his first feature presentation. The depressing feel of the movie can make the going a bit a tough at times, with Kurosawa choosing an Autumnal palette, which seems to mirror the decay of both the Japanese economy and Ryuhei's family. The plot is grey and bleak with no hope for a miraculous event to pull the Sasaki's from the gutter; a return to normality (however mundane) is the best that they can hope for. There are few instances of comedic relief but not enough to turn the movie into a comedy drama or lift the overall feeling of depression.

    For those of you who are looking for an action laden piece then 'Tokyo Sonata' is definitely not the movie for you. If, however, you are looking for a drama which is both engaging and intimate then you could do a lot worse than to check this movie out. In fact, depending on how you look at it, 'Sonata' could be labelled as the most realistic horror ever produced!