Despite his reputation as a leading J-Horror auteur, Kiyoshi Kurosawa has tended to eschew the grisly thrills and spectral manifestations of his peers for a more diffuse atmosphere of mystery and dread. Even at his most terrifying, his approach has always been one of genre estrangement, and films like Cure and Pulse are unsettling less for their shock-laden effects than the loneliness and isolation within which they’re embedded. There are no ghosts in the family drama Tokyo Sonata, no senseless violence (though, typical of a Kurosawa film, there are characters driven to suicide), but the spare, emptied-out cityscapes and sterile interiors clearly belong to the director.
This is a Tokyo story of a different sort, both larger than the metropolis and smaller than the middle-class abode of the Sasakis, the family at the center of Kurosawa’s film. When the administrative job of father Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) is outsourced to China, and the country’s lingering American presence induces his son Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) to join the U.S. military and perhaps end up serving in Iraq, it’s symptomatic of how Japan has no choice but to contend with the new globalized world order, which is sapping the nation and leaving unemployed salarymen congregating in city parks and malls teeming with listless shoppers. Kurosawa presents a post-bubble Japan that’s exhausted and absurd, lifelessly going through the motions, and no longer recognizable to itself.
It would be simplistic, however, to label this a crisis of identity. Though laid off, reassigned to arbitrary jobs, stripped of domestic roles, and seemingly unconcerned with moral boundaries, his characters stumble onward through a fog of amnesia and dreams, continually awakening to new possibilities in their surroundings and themselves. Apocalypse may be imminent, but so is the chance to start over: here, perhaps more urgently than ever before, it’s about what happens when people confront the world outside, and what new, fragile connections they might begin to forge.
The film opens with a windstorm disrupting the Sasaki household. Ryuhei’s wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) hurriedly shuts the door, mops up the rain-splattered floor, then, curiously, opens the door again and stares out. Later that afternoon, it’s as if the storm hasn’t so much passed as taken up residence in the house—perhaps in response to Megumi’s gesture of invitation—and indeed in each of its inhabitants. Like the unexpectedly violent flashes of light that strobe through the window, the exterior world intrudes on the interior one, but without appearing to interrupt the rhythms of daily life.
Each character undergoes a dramatic transformation, while all of them try to maintain the appearance of the perfect Japanese family, with Ryuhei surreptitiously taking a job as a janitor. Megumi is kidnapped, but finds the experience surprisingly thrilling. Youngest son Kenji (Kai Inowaki) squirrels away his lunch money for secret piano lessons, while Takashi leaves to fight a war whose circumstances are even murkier than his own motives. For the first two-thirds of the film, the quiet rebellion of the characters amplifies, or rather, diminishes: a family apocalypse staged as an implosion—each member disconnected and alone.
The final 30 minutes, literally quickened to a dash by Ryuhei and Kenji, and taken to the next level by Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho, in the role of a hapless thief, might seem too brash coming after the more delicately drawn events thus far. But maybe this is what Kurosawa intended—to push destruction to the point of rebirth, and perhaps back again. Tokyo Sonata culminates in a breathtaking piano recital by Kenji, who, finally, can share his talent with the rest of his family. While Kurosawa offers no resolution—even now, the family members still can’t communicate with one another—the plaintive strains of Debussy leave everyone transfixed with wonder.