Tokyo Sonata – Review
by Miguel Douglas on December 31, 2009
Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa has been one of Japan’s rising directors within the last decade. With many surprising and memorable titles already under his belt, he’s always been an advocate of promoting social issues through the medium of his films. His latest being Tokyo Sonata, is perhaps his most direct confrontation with the societal ills that persist within the modern age of Japan.
Tokyo Sonata follows a single family spearheaded by father Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa), who recently lost his job at a prominent company in which then proceeds to lie about the whole incident to the family; the mother, Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), a complacent housewife who begins to question her role as such; older son Takashi (Yu Koyanagi), who joins the military in search of having purpose in his life; and the youngest son Kenji (Inowaki Kai), a child prodigy who likes opposing authoritative figures. They each go through their trials and tribulations, hiding their true motivations and desire’s within themselves, unwilling to share them with what you would think is the closest aspect to one’s life, their family.
What Kurosawa has accomplished so vigorously in his other films, he’s done yet again with Tokyo Sonata. He masterfully deconstructs the traditional Japanese family, exposing and confronting the hierarchical setting that exists within that tradition and how it affects the wellbeing of society as whole. From the very beginning of the film, we are confronted with the traditional family structure, a structure that requires obedience, understanding of place, and conformation from everyone who participates within it. This structure is slowly unraveled throughout the course of the film though. For example, the role of Ryuhei, the stringent father who expects everything to work in place, soon finds he is incapable of carrying out the role of father figure when he loses his job. Another example is the role of Megumi as mother. While content with her position as the traditional housewife in the beginning, she soon finds herself restless against a social system that has casted her as an individual who should only cook, clean, and nurture her family, nothing else.
These and many other family issues that are addressed within Tokyo Sonata, but one can also see that Kurosawa is attempting to examine Japanese society as a whole. The issue of high unemployment and homelessness, the crisis of wandering youth, and generational gap differences permeate the course of the film. It’s not that he solely focuses on these issues; it’s that the issues present in the film have become so interwoven within the common Japanese family that it’s certainly frightening in the most basic sense. Perhaps Kurosawa is conveying that the Japanese family structure is the key to building Japan back up from a dilapidated system that is slowly corroding its nation from the inside out.
As for the cinematography in this film, it was fantastic. Kurosawa definitely knows how to address a scene, painstakingly presenting the viewer with little hints throughout that give a physical manifestation to the inner turmoil that is occurring inside the characters. For example, the use of a train passing by the house when conflictions within the family comes to fruition are excellent is giving the viewer a look into the subconsciousness of the characters. This leads me into the acting, which was another incredible attribute to the overall experience. Each actor accurately portrayed how the common Japanese family acts, but it’s interesting to see this because the characters in the film were promoting the established structural roles that exist within a family. It’s like the actors and actresses in the film were playing roles within roles, which makes for a very interesting watch.
Understanding this material, Kurosawa does attempt to deliver some hope from within despair. While the crumbling of society is apparent all around the family—and including themselves—it’s through their metamorphosis as individuals that they slowly begin to return, able to accept and understand that the social system that they were encased in had to be torn down in order for them to begin anew. Maybe Kurosawa is attempting to bring forth these contemporary problems that Japan faces in order to raise concern for them, or maybe his film is regarding a worldly concern on said problems. Whichever way one approaches it, Tokyo Sonata is an undoubtedly a brilliant and surprisingly poignant film for our time and its Kurosawa’s most harrowing, intimate, and critical societal critique as of yet.