Running time 119 minutes
Written by Max Mannix, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Sachiko Tanaka
Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring Teruyuki Kagawa, Kyoko Koizumi
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata, from a screenplay by Max Mannix, Mr. Kurosawa and Sachiko Tanaka, reminds me of a French film I saw a few years ago, Laurent Cantet’s Time Out, about a suddenly unemployed married man who keeps going off each morning as if he still had a job. If anything, this central plot line is even timelier today than it has been at any time since the Great Depression, and I write as one who lived through that global cataclysm.
Tokyo Sonata begins with the outsourcing of a Japanese supervisory position to a lower-earning Chinese business school graduate. Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) is the victim of this job displacement. But when he goes home to his family, he does not mention that he has lost his job. Instead, he has a quiet dinner with his wife, Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), and his two sons, teenage Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) and elementary-school-age Kenji (Kai Inowaki). Ryuhei then blithely goes off the next morning as if nothing has happened. He spends the “working day” idling on a park bench, reading in a library and standing on a long line waiting for a meal from the neighborhood soup kitchen. One day he encounters Kurosu (Kanji Tsuda), an old friend, and now a fellow jobless pretender. Kurosu is sure that his wife has detected his deception, and to allay her suspicions, he invites Ryuhei to have dinner with his family, to whom Ryuhei will be presented as Kurosu’s co-worker. The way Kurosu figures it, his deception can last only as long as his severance pay lasts.
Sure enough, one day when Ryuhei goes to Kurosu’s house, he learns that Kurosu has killed himself and his wife, leaving their daughter an orphan. Kurosu’s severance pay had apparently been exhausted. Meanwhile, there are mini-rebellions at home after Megumi discovers that her husband has been deceiving her. First, Kenji defies his father’s injunction against his taking piano lessons by using his school lunch money to take instruction from Kaneko (Haruka Igawa), a private piano teacher, who tells his parents that Kenji is a child prodigy and should be sent to a music school. Takashi puts an end to his family malaise by joining the U.S. Army in Japan.
A truck accident involving Ryuhei, and a daytime house robbery during which Megumi is menaced with a knife, and briefly kidnapped, completes the virtual demolition of the family unit. At this lowest point of the family’s existence, an almost miraculous reversal of the family’s fortunes occurs and the film ends on a rapturously high note of redemption after the wallowing in basso profundo through most of its running time.
Mr. Kurosawa addresses the quandary in which he finds himself in his Director’s Statement: “This film portrays a very ordinary family in modern Japan. I started from a point where lies, suspicion and a complete breakdown of communication already have established themselves within the family. Without a doubt, this is ‘modern’ and this is also ‘Japan’. However, I would like to show a glimmer of hope in the end. Can I do that? Even if I could do so, would that be something that saves a conventional family?”
The economic disruption that we are all feeling around the world hit Japan much earlier than it did here, which may explain why Tokyo Sonata is much more au courant with the current crisis than comparable American movies on the general subject of middle-class life. This is what makes a smug satire of the ’50s like Revolutionary Road so ridiculous. If only we could restore the suburban complacency of that period, we would hail it as a triumph. As it is, Tokyo Sonata speaks to us, with feeling and passion, as one of the most eloquent statements on the world today that we are likely to see in this moviegoing year.