Kiyoshi Kurosawa is best known in the West for his tales of creepy unease, such as “Cure” (1997) and “Pulse” (2001), in which he mined the conventions of J-horror to reveal the deep anomie and slow disintegration of Japanese society. Even his works outside the genre, most notably “Barren Illusion” (1999) and “Bright Future” (2003), were disturbing, rendered with a disquieting mise-en-scène and a darkness that threatened to swallow all his troubled (and often tortured) characters.
Unfortunately, Kurosawa in recent times seemed to have reached a point of creative exhaustion in his chosen genre. His previous two films, the supremely-disappointing “Loft” (2005) and “Retribution” (2006), found Kurosawa to be doing little more than going through the motions, offering us only faded copies of past glories.
Therefore, it is a pleasure to report that Kurosawa’s latest film, “Tokyo Sonata,” is his best in quite a few years, a truly frightening work that achieves its effects without resorting to tired genre mechanics. It is, in fact, a horror film of sorts. Only this time, instead of a crawling, long-haired female ghost, the monster is the sinking Japanese economy. Mass unemployment is the behemoth that threatens to devour everyone in sight. This subject definitely has acute resonances on this side of the Pacific, now that here in the U.S., we are currently being treated to the sight of the banking system imploding before our very eyes.
In this film, one victim of the brutal realities of global capitalism run amok is salaryman Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa), who at the outset is downsized from his administrative position. His company has decided to outsource much of its operations to China, where they can hire three employees for the price of one Japanese worker. Sasaki’s boss sits him down and essentially demands that he justify his existence; unable to do so, he quietly packs up his belongings and immediately leaves the office. His identity and male authority as family breadwinner now in serious peril, he assiduously hides the truth from his wife and family, sneaking into his own house in the early afternoon like a common criminal. In a situation recalling Laurent Cantet’s 2001 film “Time Out,” he puts on his suit each day and pretends to go to work, spending his days wandering the streets and applying for jobs at the unemployment office, where he is only offered humiliating low-wage service work. He lines up for free bowls of porridge along with the local homeless, where he comes across his old friend Kurosu (Kanji Tsuda), who is also in the same boat, but is in an even more desperate situation, which he unsuccessfully masks behind a brash, devil-may-care exterior.
The sense of horrifying unease the viewer feels lies in the sight of the Sasaki family’s slow but sure disintegration, punctuated by increasingly disturbing scenes of the family having dinner. These gatherings reinforce the family members’ growing isolation from each other. Sasaki’s wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) senses from the start that something is very wrong, but she continues to go about her domestic duties, greeting everyone as they come home with a cheerful cry of “Okaeri!”(“Welcome home!”). In reference to the film’s title, Sasaki’s youngest son Kenji (Kai Inowaki) develops a passion for the piano, sparked by his attraction to Kaneko (Haruka Igawa), a recently divorced private piano tutor. Kenji is revealed to have real talent, but in a desperate attempt to assert his fading sense of control, Sasaki violently opposes Kenji’s lessons, forcing Kenji to go behind his parents’ back and pay the tutor with his lunch money. The eldest son Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) is a taciturn, shadowy presence in the house, only speaking to his parents when absolutely necessary. He seems to lack direction, taking dead-end odd jobs such as handing out club flyers on the street. When out of the blue he decides to enlist in the U.S. Army to fight in Iraq, this shocks the rest of the family and enrages Sasaki even further, as everything around him slips rapidly out of his control.
“Tokyo Sonata” showcases Kurosawa’s great strengths as a director, especially in sustaining a palpable mood of unease and anxiety. As in his other films, he also injects off-kilter episodes of absurdist humor that integrate remarkably well into, and enhance, the growing sense of dread. Kurosawa also reveals himself to be a master of composition. In the family dinner scenes, for example, the characters are often kept off-center on screen, providing a visual clue as to how Sasaki’s unemployment has upended the fragile balance of this family.
As impressive as this all is, it would be a mere stylistic exercise without the near-perfect performances of his great cast, especially Kagawa (“Sway,” “Sukiyaki Western Django”) and Koizumi (“Sakuran,” “Adrift in Tokyo”) as the central married couple, whose gradual estrangement becomes such that they seem to live in separate universes. Kagawa, in perhaps his best performance to date, skillfully conveys Sasaki’s desperate struggle to retain his sense of dignity and male authority in the face of the vicious forces arrayed against him, while Koizumi beautifully expresses the resentment and frustration that lies beneath Megumi’s placid domestic-goddess exterior.
“Tokyo Sonata” could just as well have been called “Tokyo Story,” since Kurosawa makes us feel the sadness of broken family ties just as poetically, and poignantly, as Ozu did in his masterpiece. And this particular Tokyo story ends, quite literally, on a beautiful note; Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” may well have never been put to better use in a film.
“Tokyo Sonata” screens at the New York Film Festival on October 9 and 11, and will be released in early 2009.