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Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008)


     Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, known until this point exclusively as a director of arty horror films, makes a major career detour with the family drama Tokyo Sonata. With this sudden shift in genre and ambition, though, he ends up delivering his best film yet. Telling an ensemble tale about a family’s attempts to navigate the economic and social landscape of modern-day Japan, Sonata externalizes the stress that’s inherent in keeping up appearances while under assault from all angles. The plot gets set into motion as the father of the perfectly average Sasaki clan loses his middle management position and begins wandering the streets, too ashamed to tell his family that he’s been laid off. A salaryman without a salary, he soon finds that his seemingly unique situation is, in fact, endemic. Similarly dislocated unemployed workers populate the parks of the city, suggesting that the malaise that afflicts the Sasakis extends to all of Japanese society. Certainly the mother and son in the Sasaki family are not immune to the same latent, but unmistakable and unsettled feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. Mama Sasaski feels invisible in her own household, and Kenji, one of their sons, grows further alienated from his parents as they refuse to embrace his burning desire to take up piano lessons. A distinct discord is present in the family’s earliest interactions, and it only grows stronger as the film continues.


     The underlying anxieties that fester throughout the first half of Tokyo Sonata manifest themselves in the second, through a series of subtly exaggerated, almost phantasmagoric, encounters that see the family placed in one improbable scenario after another, challenging and mocking their continued decorum. An unlikely kidnapping, an automobile accident, and an entry into military service expand the film’s emotional range and create palpably alien territory for Kurosawa to explore. It’s here, as the family’s lives threaten to unravel, that Kurosawa’s past as a director of scary movies pays the greatest dividends. He’s able to create a pervasive sense of unease, even as he sets up the film’s frequent comic moments, which often come at the expense of the hapless protagonists. The air of anxiety that floats throughout Tokyo Sonata ensures that when the film’s redemptive but ambivalent ending finally arrives, it feels like a genuinely cathartic sidestepping of the nuclear family’s inevitable extinction.



Jeremy Heilman