MOVIE REVIEW ★★★ ½ Tokyo Sonata

Poignant Social Commentary from Director Kurosawa

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Teruyuki Kagawa as Ryuhei Sasaki.
Courtesy of Regent Releasing

Tokyo Sonata

Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Starring Teruyuki Kagawa


Limited release tonight at Kendall Square Cinema

Looking for a feel-good, happy-go-lucky movie? You won’t find it in Tokyo Sonata, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest film. But for what it lacks in fairy tale happy-ever-afters, Sonata more than makes up for it in its dark, subtle humor and highly perceptive look at the underground culture of unemployment in Japan and its impact on one seemingly typical family.

Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) is the father and head of the household, a middle-aged businessman who, within the first few minutes of the film, loses his job. His struggles and the shame he feels over this loss, magnified by the social pressures to maintain all appearances of providing for his family, compose one of the main storylines. We see Ryuhei enter into the secret world of the unemployed, men who put on business suits in the morning in front of their wives and children, only to wait in lines for free food and for disappointingly menial job opportunities.

But Ryuhei is not the only one with a secret or internal struggle — younger son Kenji (Inowaki Kai) has his own agenda, using the lunch money his mother gives him to pay for piano lessons, after his father, in a desperate attempt to retain some sense of control of his family, forbids him to learn. Older son and slacking college student Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) wants to go join the U.S. military, a decision that only causes further conflict and confrontation in the family. Of course, the mother is the glue that holds the family together, and Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) does a remarkably admirable job of it. Unfortunately, her quiet efforts, cooking and taking care of her family, cannot keep things from spinning out of control. Watching them fall apart, from the view of each individual member rather than the whole family at once, is like watching a car crash in slow motion.

While Sonata is far from a typical horror movie, it’s clear why director Kurosawa (Pulse, Cure) is well known for his existentialist thrillers. We see a family go through the daily routines of meals and coming home from school or work, yet quiet moments are captured in an almost chilling manner. Silences are significant. Waiting in lines is significant. The dialogue is simple and conversational. It is this simplicity that carries the film’s poignancy.

And although the story never quite relents in terms of one depressing twist after another, one of the film’s strengths is its quiet humor. There are countless moments when you can’t help laughing inside at the sheer awkwardness or irony of the situation (not to mention plenty of FML-worthy scenes as well). For the most part, the acting is solid and convincing; I found Inowaki Kai’s portrayal of the rebellious and determined younger son to be particularly winsome. These are real people facing real problems, and the powerful social commentary on the economic recession is best seen through this extremely personal light.

Tokyo Sonata has already won many film festival awards (from the Cannes Film Festival, Hochi Film Awards, Yokohama Film Festival, and more) for its acting, directing, and cinematography.