Warning: the following post contains spoilers in the fifth paragraph.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tôkyô sonata, from a story by Max Mannix and screenplay by Kurosawa and Sachiko Tanaka, caps what has been a very strong year for new Japanese cinema in New York. Following three superior comedies at this year's New York Asian Film Festival - Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki, 2007), Dainipponjin (Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2007) and Fine, Totally Fine (Yosuke Fujita) - Kiyoshi Kurosawa's telescopic latest stakes out more dramatic terrain in its portrayal of Japanese institutions in crisis. In Tôkyô sonata, Kurosawa challenges the Japanese male, the stability of the familial unit, the economic health according to which many of its institutions have been re-orientated and Japan's (seemingly) diminishing place on the world stage. While Adrift in Tokyo (the Japanese family), Dainipponjin (its cultural mythology and the status of the male) and Fine, Totally Fine (again the family and also the more universal subject of maturation) all address topics of Japan's institutional health and self-image, no film this year can claim the comprehensiveness and ambition of Tôkyô sonata's diagnosis.
Tôkyô sonata commences in the same narrative territory as Laurent Cantet's 2001 Time Out, and even Yasujiro Ozu's I Graduated, but... (1929), with family patriarch Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) losing his job at the outset in a cost-cutting measure that will relocate his firm to China. As with the earlier French picture, Sasaki finds himself unable to tell his wife that he is newly unemployed, compelling the middle-aged former administrator to spend his days amid the island nation's unemployed throngs, standing in line at work agencies - where he is assured that he will never find work to match his earlier position (concisely describing an economy and nation in decline) and where he rejects their initial offers (cf. the Ozu) - and for free rice porridge, in spaces that look directly lifted out of My Man Godfrey's (1936) Depression-era waterfronts. Sasaki soon meets a former classmate who has a three-month jobless head start on his pal, having cultivated a routine that includes a very funny, little-known cell phone feature. Indeed, in spite of the tragic nature of his position, Sasaki's classmate infuses Tôkyô sonata with much of the film's distinctive light humor.
Younger son Kenji's (Inowaki Kai) plot-line likewise introduces the comic into Tôkyô sonata with the twelve year old's audacious defiance of his school teacher, whom he notes was reading manga porn on his commuter train. This defense leads to complete classroom chaos, wherein one of the young Kenji's classmates claims that a "revolution" is afoot. Societal dissolution has spread, in other words, to the school house. Yet, Kenji, in spite of his teacher's insistence that he is being bullied by the mostly introverted young teen, is most interested in learning piano, which his father opposes on principle, even after he receives indications of his son's virtuosity. Piano seems to be an ill-suited hobby for the young Japanese man.
Sasaki's harsh treatment of his younger son proceeds from his feeling that his older son Takahashi (Yû Koyanagi) was coddled in his younger years. After breezing into and out of the family home earlier in the film, Taka suddenly proclaims his intention of joining the United States military, which he points out protects Japan. (At a festival where an opening weekend screening prompted a "down with capitalism" shout at the end of the picture, and where any anti-American screed, no matter how trivial or poorly conceived, receives reflexive applause, the apparently reasoned choice to join the American military absolutely silenced festival-goers.) While Taka will ultimately resist Japan's one-time war enemy, his desire to serve his nation again falls outside of the corporate paradigm that the quintessential Sasaki believes to be the only path for the Japanese male, in spite of his personal failure.
The most passive resistance to the film's patriarch and to circumscribed societal positions is enacted by stay-at-home mother Megumi (Kyôko Koizumi). Refusing the divorce that Taka encourages, Megumi finally defies her husband in playing an active role in a crime for which she is the victim. Without being too specific, suffice it to say that this incident prompts an allegorical "earthquake," hoped for in an earlier line of dialogue, that finally leaves each of the family members effected and in need of a new beginning after a late film trauma. The rattled Sasaki family, seated together at the end in a messed living space, will thus begin their collective redemption, figured in the father's tacit acceptance of a new class (occasioned by his evident peace with a janitorial position and his return of a large sum of money) and Kenji's concluding piano recital. As a family unit, the Sasaki's resist Japan's capitalistic value system.
Of course, 'the earthquake' spoken of above is a long time coming - that is, without a revolutionary turning over; perhaps it is closer in spirit to a landslide. Kurosawa and his fellow screenwriter construct their narrative upon a pattern of repetitions with an increasing set of variations that finally shatter the familial cohesiveness that is under burgeoning pressure from the first. The tension of Sasaki's efforts to preserve normalcy lead to the film's late passage devastations in an ever increasing pace of cross-cutting. In this regard, Tôkyô sonata's elegant conclusion provides needed, real-time relief.
More immediately distinctive, however, are Kurosawa's expressionist spaces, with their projections of narrative dynamics and drama in a sudden rain, background pools of blue light and in the muffled sight and sound of a passing train detectable in a horizontal slit of glass. Kiyoshi Kurosawa's filmmaking touch appears most vividly in his mise-en-scène, in those visual accents that perfectly underline accompanying narrative feeling. On this level, Kurosawa has never been better; and yet, it is ultimately the breadth and ambition of Tôkyô sonata's societal critique that determines its status as the director's masterpiece. Needless to say, this is one of the year's very best films.
Tôkyô sonata will receive U.S. distribution through Regent Releasing.