24 October 2008

Tokyo Sonata


Written & Directed by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Full credits from IMDb

Tokyo Sonata, a gentle and immaculately composed domestic drama, opens during a storm; as with Retribution’s earthquakes, Kurosawa uses weather conditions as stand-ins for cultural ones. Tokyo is in turbulent times; after blustering winds disturb a living room’s unpaperweighted papers, our protagonist, Teruyuki Kagawa, learns he’s been fired from his middle management position. Labor is cheaper in China, so the company is moving his job there. (Outsourcing is not exclusive to the West.) The physical condition of the city, as Kurosawa and his crew film it, mirrors its economy: set in the outskirts of central Tokyo, the film shows the city as an industrial, weedy, peeling-paint miseryland, where ramshackle houses pile on top of one another, surrounded by elevated trains and electrical wires that look like vines surrounding Mayan ruins. Lines at employment agencies stretch down several flights of stairwell.

So, broadly, Tokyo Sonata is about a city, but it’s also about a single family; Kurosawa tackles the cultural crisis by focusing on a representative sample. He shoots the central clan through open doorways; frequently obstructing our view enhances the voyeuristic intimacy. But squeezing his characters into frames within frames also enhances the feeling that times are tight. “We’re like a slowly sinking ship,” says Kagawa’s old friend and fellow unemployed in front of a flaming trashcan. “The lifeboats are gone, the water’s up to our mouths.” Kagawa keeps his unemployment a secret from his family, pretending to go to work each day while taking his meals under cold stone overpasses with the homeless and the crazy. Each member of his family has his or her own secret, too—his wife’s excursion, in which she contracts Stockholm Syndrome, with a home-invading burglar (Koji Yakusho); his youngest son’s furtive piano lessons, paid for with purloined lunch money; and his eldest boy’s desire to join the American Army’s noble, ahem, fight in Iraq.

Kagawa’s economic condition drives him to seething bitterness, to a point that he starts to resemble a certain maverick senator: he promises to give his piano prodigy some “straight talk”; he hypocritically berates his boy for a failing that he shares (lying); and he won’t back down from his absurd positions for the sake of maintaining appearances. But the father’s failure to provide for his family doubles as an allegory for a government failing to protect its people—and an America failing to protect the globe. Following a startling moment of domestic violence, Kurosawa cuts to a news-broadcast announcing The Surge. As in (my reading of) Retribution, the Iraq War becomes an essential subtext. “If America has a problem, Japan’s directly affected,” G.I. Joe-san tells his father, indicating that the failing economy and endless war here in the U.S. help drive the whole world into penury and (“home front”) violence. Not just an attack on the policies of Bush and his potential successor, though, Tokyo Sonata functions at a basic human-level; it’s about how, when conditions reach a breaking point, everyone’s instinct is to run away and start over. But starting over, Kurosawa suggests, has to happen at home. Grade: A

Watch the (Japanese) trailer:

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