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Capturing the Dissonance of a Fractured Family

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Regent Releasing

About 10 years ago, I was home for the summer after my freshman year in college. This was going to be the summer of catching up on all of the movies I had missed during the hectic year. I was perusing the foreign film section searching for my usual cinematic fare, which at the time was contemporary French and Chinese films. Suddenly, I come across an enigmatic cover with half of a man’s face in shadow. It said “ 'Cure,' a film by Kiyoshi Kurosawa,” and the tagline read, “Madness. Terror. Murder.” Intrigued, I read the back of the DVD case. Although I had never seen a Japanese film before and was not very interested in exploring its cinema, but a reviewer blurb compared “Cure” to recent American hit “Seven.” So I rented “Cure.” It was then and continues to be today one of the best films I have ever seen. I immediately watched as many of Mr. Kurosawa’s movies as I could find. Soon my love of his work compelled me to discover the rest of Japanese cinema, which has become my passion and area of study.

In the West, Mr. Kurosawa – no relation to Akira – is best known as a J-horror director of “Cure” and “Pulse,” recently adapted into horrible American remake. However, the horror label fails to encapsulate his masterful use and subversion of various generic conventions in his narratives. Under Mr. Kurosawa’s watch, a potentially run-of-the-mill J-horror plot becomes an existential musing on alienation in the digital age, a slacker buddy movie involves poisonous jellyfish and murder, and a doppelganger tale begins creepily and transforms into a slapsticky farce. His latest film, “Tokyo Sonata,” follows a typically dysfunctional Japanese family as it is buffeted by the effects of China’s rise as an economic superpower, changing gender roles and seemingly insurmountable generation gaps. Stark, powerful and unpredictable, “Tokyo Sonata,” which premiered in America at the New York Film Festival, is without a doubt Mr. Kurosawa’s strongest effort since “Cure.”

In person, Mr. Kurosawa is remarkably calm and soft-spoken, belying the disturbing images and stories that spring from his imagination. After what appeared to be a long morning of interviews, he remained gracious and thoughtful with his answers translated by Linda Hoagland.

Q. In the past, your films seem to start from a genre formula – horror, for example – and work outwards, innovating certain elements and adding your particular existential spin to the story. Did “Tokyo Sonata” also begin with the desire to do a family melodrama?

A. Yes, I do like genre films. But I would say that in the context of Japan, the genre films are not so clearly defined so I’m not really so identified with the horror genre in Japan. And I think internationally, once the horror genre attaches to you, you are kind of stuck with it. Because of course it’s impossible for me to do everything in the context of a conventional genre. I’m vigorously innovating, but sometimes people don’t seem to notice my innovations so I get sick of genre and dump it all. And that’s what I’ve done here in “Tokyo Sonata.”

Q. Teruyuki Kagawa brought a wonderful intensity to the lead role of Ryuhei. Why did you decide not to use (frequent collaborator) Koji Yakusho, who you have described as your actor alter ego, as the lead in “Tokyo Sonata” and put him in a cameo role instead?

A. Two factors: One, Mr. Yakusho simply wasn’t available when I wanted to film, and also I wanted an actor that was about 10 years younger so it would be very plausible for him to have children that were still minors living at home. Also, I really wanted this family of four to work as an ensemble and not really have a lead. And if I had cast Mr. Yakusho as the father, no matter how good the other actors were, he would have wound up taking up a lot more space and I wanted to find someone who could seem on the surface a little more average or typical.

Q. The film references the American war in Iraq and China’s industrialization via news programs in the background of several scenes and through major plot developments. Is there a sense in contemporary Japan that it is caught between American military occupation and cultural influence on one hand, and emerging superpower China on the other?

A. Yes, but that wasn’t actually my initial goal. My initial goal was to make it as close to reality as possible, and the reality in Japan is that most people who are downsized are downsized because they can’t compete with cheap Chinese labor. In terms of the son going to war, the initial idea is where is the farthest away he can get from his family, and the farthest away is on the battlefield. But as you may know, according to the Japanese constitution, even if he were to go into the army, he couldn’t go into combat. So I thought that by fictionalizing the situation and letting him be able to join the American military, he would be able to go into combat.

Q. In “Tokyo Sonata” – as in your other films – there are either very few people in a room or they are arranged in a way which emphasizes the disconnect and alienation. I’m thinking of the family dinner scenes and food line scenes in this film. What were the logistics of filming these scenes?

A. I actually took a new approach to presenting my big characters. In the past, fundamentally, my main characters would be alone, city streets would be empty buildings, rooms would be empty, and a single individual – the main character – would be standing there. But this time, I made a decision that I wanted to show many other people occupying the same world, the same city as my main characters. So I wanted to make as many other people visible as possible. I’ve always made my films in Tokyo, but this time I really wanted to emphasize the Tokyoness of Tokyo. And so all the people in the film are living in Tokyo, and I wanted as many as possible to be visible.

Q. Megumi (Ryuhei’s wife) arguably undergoes the biggest transformation in the film, although everyone transforms. It’s as if her transformation is central, the most important for the family. What did you envision her role in the film and by extension the role of the Japanese housewife?

A. Certainly, there are many different types of housewives in Japan pursuing their own hobbies or goals. But for Megumi, I wanted to portray her as someone that had no role in the world other than mother and wife. I think there are many housewives like this Japan. The problem is because she is so defined by her family role. Ultimately, she is the one who has to ask the existential question of who is she if it’s all defined in the context of her family and her children. And I think in that sense her eldest son is the extreme opposite. He is 100 percent confronting the world and himself in the world. And she is confronting herself in herself. So we have these polar opposites, and together they create a dynamism, a dynamic structure in the film.

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