The sudden acceleration problem with some of Toyota's automobiles became an international scandal well after the family drama Tokyo Sonata hit Japanese theaters. Nevertheless, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa) devotes so much of the film to images of Japan's national downturn that sound bites of Toyota CEOs apologizing to the American public would fit right in.
Tokyo Sonata's haunting portrayal of domestic decline probably fits the American zeitgeist better now than during its 2008 release in Japan. The film begins when mid-level executive Ryûhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) loses his job because of Chinese outsourcing. The arrival of a pretty, Chinese go-getter at his office hints at the end of the Japanese way of business and the rise of a Chinese age.
Sasaki enters a life of seemingly endless lines for job placement and free meals. We seldom see the ends of the queues, which snake out of the frames. Sasaki's just one of a jobless multitude. He never expresses his feelings of betrayal and emasculation in dialogue, but Kagawa's implosive performance makes words unnecessary. Sasaki clearly believes he deserves a career and balks at selling himself in interviews. Consequently, one interviewer tells him to sing Karaoke-style instead. After a skin-crawling pause, Kurosawa cuts to Sasaki afterward, smashing chunks of garbage in the streets in a fit of rage. Perhaps nothing signals the humiliation of unemployment more eloquently than Sasaki's efforts to conceal his joblessness from his family (a similar theme to Laurent Cantet's powerful Time Out). He openly admires an old, unemployed high school friend for his masquerade as a wheeler-dealer.
Sasaki's family life deteriorates through the course of the film, but he was probably alienated from his wife and sons long before he lost his job. His teenage son Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) works odd jobs at irregular hours. Takashi sees so little future in Japan, he contemplates joining the American military, despite the surging combat in the Middle East. Younger son Kenji (Kai Inowaki) proves to be an unusually perceptive and self-assured boy with a deep aspiration to play piano. Sasaki shoots down Kenji's request for piano lessons for reasons that seem to go beyond simply an inability to afford them. Does he feel competitive with his youngest child? Does he begrudge an art form that contributes no obvious financial value? Kenji and his dutiful mother Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) resent Sasaki's increasingly harsh treatment. Ironically, the emptiness of Sasaki's authority at home perfectly matches the hollow economic system that turned against him.
Kurosawa began his career as a purveyor of eerie, existential thrillers, part of a Japanese filmmaking trend nicknamed J-Horror in the United States. (Pulse, his most famous, used a haunted Web site to explore urban angst.) Tokyo Sonata occasionally harks back to his supernatural roots, such as a fake-out dream scene. When the train goes by the Sasaki family's window, the spooky strobe light effect hints at the characters' inner turmoil.
Tokyo Sonata eschews dread for middle-class despair. Kagawa, Inowaki and Koizumi deliver extraordinary performances as mostly ordinary people. The film builds its characters with a steady, deliberate pace, which shifts into an inexplicably high, melodramatic gear in its final section. A series of twists, some incredibly bizarre, inspire the three separately to run away from their home and responsibilities. It's as if Kurosawa doesn't trust a soft-spoken, realistic narrative; he'd rather jolt the audience with more extreme behavior, particularly in the case of Megumi. For whatever reason, Kurosawa's twists feel like imitations of other art-house directors. Tokyo Sonata remains a powerful film, even though it suffers from its own problem of sudden acceleration.
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