Kiyoshi Kurosawa Shines a Light

Regent Releasing

City Pulse | March 9, 2009
Winner of the 2008 Jury Prize at Cannes, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata is a lyrical family drama about a father emerging from a fog of denial after losing his administrative job when his department is outsourced to China. Teruyuki Kagawa is brilliant as Ryuhei Sasaki who, along with many other unemployed Japanese businessmen, pretends to go work everyday in order to retain some semblance of dignity and routine. At home, Teruyuki's wife Megumi (well played my Kyoko Koizumi) takes care of the house and their youngest son Kenji who secretly repurposes his school lunch money to pay for private piano lessons because his father refuses to allow him to study the instrument. It's in this atmosphere of deception that an ordinary Japanese family discovers a new sense of fundamental human values. Tokyo Sonata is an engaging picture that brings out the universality of modern existence through a prism of Japanese life.

There's something uncomfortably comical in the way Ryuhei walks around the streets of Tokyo after being fired. His disorientation with the world around him provokes a tone of absurdist humor. Teruyuki Kagawa is a stone-faced actor who uses his stoic expression to evince a heart-on-sleeve sensitivity burning beneath the surface of his skin. There's Buster Keaton quality to Kagawa's facial features, and his deportment suggests Keaton's discreet intensity. In his steely blue business suit, Kagawa becomes a downsized everyman caught in a web of confusion and humiliation. His feet are stuck in a concrete corporate structure that makes no allowances for the personal hopes of the human cogs in its system.

Kagawa's Ryuhei finds some relief when he runs into Kurosu (Kanji Tsuda), an old friend from school, who is also unemployed but keeping a brave face by also pretending to go to work every day. Kurosu keeps a tight reign on maintaining a regiment of smoke and mirrors to disguise his desperate predicament while he stands on line for hours at a job center for employment that never comes. Kurosu's cell phone rings five times an hour to retain a perception of work related activity as he goes through his day eating at free lunch lines and sitting for hours in a public library. The dynamic influence of Kurosu's subplot occurs between two call-and-response scenes where Ryuhei comes to dinner with Kurosu's family before returning to his friend's vacant home. The dramatic weight of the story arrives with a sobering narrative punch that sends Ryuhei to grapple with the immediate demands of his own family.

Ryuhei's wife Megumi discovers her husband's daily charade when she notices him in public, but keeps it to herself just as she similarly learns of her son Kenji's covert piano lessons with a teacher who recognizes his prodigious talent. The family's communication breakdown takes its most uncontrollable toll their older son Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) who chooses to join the American Army fighting in Iraq.

Tokyo Sonata loses some steam in its third act when a burglary/kidnapping hijacks the story into a realm of unnecessary dramatic preoccupation. Nevertheless, the self-esteem that Ryuhei regains in his new job as a maintenance worker at a shopping mall brings the story to a catharsis that resonates with the piano sonata that Kenji plays at a conservatory audition. Kenji's self-discipline and inspiration unites his family and the audience in a hope for the future of Japan and for the economic future of the world. The effect is mesmerizing.

(Regent Releasing) PG-13. 119 mins. (B+) (Four Stars)
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