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When Bright Future Eludes, a Family Unites

Tokyo Sonata (2008)

Regent Releasing

"So·na·ta (n.): a musical composition of three or four movements of contrasting forms." – Dictionary.com.

In a curious exercise, Kiyoshi Kurosawa quite literally applies the musical definition of a sonata to his visual study of modern-day life in Tokyo. The subject is family, the unifying theme dysfunction. His characters are the instruments that play out his contradictions in style and form, juxtaposing the director's various genre practices against each other in one cumulative whole. The result: "Tokyo Sonata," a collection of narrative movements that feels as grand – and yet concise – as any musical sonata piece by Beethoven or Mozart.

"The sonata form, distinctively, characterizes the quick opening movement, which may have a short, slow introduction; the second, or slow, movement is either in the song or variation form; third comes the playful minuet of the more modern scherzo; then the quick finale in the rondo form." – Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary.

The first movement: Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) is an average, middle-class Japanese businessman – an "administrator" – until he loses his job to Chinese outsourcing when he fails to articulate to his superiors the skills that make him a necessary cog in the corporate machine. To save face with his family, Ryuhei decides to maintain the illusion of employment and continues to dress and leave for "the office" every morning. He passes the time standing futilely in line at the job-placement office and hanging around hobo parks, eating handout lunches with other men in superfluous suits.

The second movement: Mr. Kurosawa emphasizes Ryuhei's ineffectualness with static shots that leave the character's face blocked or obscured from view. When he is fired, we see only the back of his head through an open doorway as a disembodied voice instructs him to turn in his badge. The same uncomfortable technique pervades the domestic scenes, which are already full of an oppressive stillness. Against a background of ticking clocks and unnerving TV news programs, Ryuhei haphazardly asserts his authority over the family, as his sons struggle in vain to gain their father's ear and blessing for their respective desired pursuits. The eldest son, Takashi (Yu Koyanagi), wishes to join the American military, a goal that successfully turns his pre-existing emotional isolation from his family into physical separation from them. The younger son, Kenji (Kai Inowaki), ignoring his father's forbiddance of the activity, begins using his lunch money to pay for piano lessons. Ryuhei's wife, Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), aware of the presence of secrets, quietly witnesses the disintegration of her family, conscious of her own inability to pull them back together.

The third movement: As the members of the Sasaki family drift increasingly apart, as their dysfunctional communication drives them further into the depths of their own isolated consciousnesses, the film departs tonally and stylistically from the heavy domestic drama-ness of the first half. As it progresses, the film begins to feel more and more like a psychological thriller, as a runaway Kenji witnesses his friend's beating before being jailed, and Ryuhei starts losing control over his sanity after taking a job as a mall janitor. Mr. Kurosawa injects later scenes, like Megumi's nightmare about Takashi and Ryuhei's traffic accident, with elements of horror. The narrative hits its point of no return when Megumi is kidnapped by a manic depressive house thief (Koji Yakusho) and starts to like it.

The fourth movement: Mr. Kurosawa's opus ends on an entirely different note than that on which it begins or unfolds. But, despite its apparent dissonance, the final act rounds out the progression of the narrative in a mostly organic fashion, reigning in the grander gestures of the latter half of the film. It completes the cycle, albeit in an imperfect way.

Not that perfection is the goal here. "Tokyo Sonata" is a kind of experiment, an allegorical exposition of modern-day detachment through a playing with form and narrative tone. Within its transplanted structure, the film not only makes the most basic of social units – the family – representative of greater society, but it also invigorates the symbolism with unexpected and often unusual associations. In the end, the contrasts are what create cohesion.


Opens on March 13 in Manhattan.

Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa; written by Max Mannix, Mr. Kurosawa and Sachiko Tanaka; director of photography, Akiko Ashizawa; edited by Koichi Takahashi; music by Kazumasa Hashimoto; production designers, Tomoyuki Maruo and Tomoe Matsumoto; produced by Yukie Kito and Wouter Barendrecht; released by Regent Releasing. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 59 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.

WITH: Teruyuki Kagawa (Ryuhei Sasaki), Kyoko Koizumi (Megumi Sasaki), Yu Koyanagi (Takashi Sasaki), Kai Inowaki (Kenji Sasaki) and Koji Yakusho (Thief).


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