Kiyoshi Kurosawa's drama Tokyo Sonata introduces the audience to a contemporary Japanese clan, the Sasakis, who suffer from as much dysfunction as any movie family in recent memory. These folks arguably owe most or all of their tumult to the ignorance of the stubborn, obstreperous patriarch, Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa), whose actions set the stage for...read more
Kiyoshi Kurosawa's drama Tokyo Sonata introduces the audience to a contemporary Japanese clan, the Sasakis, who suffer from as much dysfunction as any movie family in recent memory. These folks arguably owe most or all of their tumult to the ignorance of the stubborn, obstreperous patriarch, Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa), whose actions set the stage for the misfortune to come. In one of the film's opening scenes, Ryuhei receives word from his boss that the company is outsourcing much of its workforce to China. In lieu of termination, the manager merely tells Ryuhei that his time in the administration department is over. "Either you contribute your fullest here or you leave our corporation." Insulted, Ryuhei then coldly marches out of his boss's office, gathers up an armful of his things from his desk, and within a few scenes, he's visiting the local unemployment lines and standing behind the destitute to collect cups of rice porridge for lunch.
As this sequence demonstrates, Ryuhei's overarching sin is one of pride -- a pride that will misguide virtually every decision he makes, and that will drive his family to the point of emotional fracture. It's the very same weakness that prompts him to refrain from confessing his unemployment to his wife, to cleverly conceal his embarrassing new janitorial job from his family, and to adamantly refuse to grant his young son permission to take music lessons, even after it becomes apparent that the child is an unqualified genius at the piano. Ryuhei's wife, Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), seems, for much of the narrative, as backward and ineffectual as her husband is dominant and obnoxious, though we can laud her for increasingly standing up to her husband as he grows viler.
Tokyo Sonata has drawn a myriad of critical comparisons to the masterworks of Yasujiro Ozu for dramatizing the vicissitudes of everyday life in Japan. Yet any apparent similarities between the two directors are somewhat limited. Like Ozu, Kurosawa delights in painterly tableaux, filming many scenes with a fixed camera from which the viewer can selectively observe what he or she wishes. And like Ozu, Kurosawa catches countless moments of human grace. That alone makes Tokyo Sonata a wonder to behold. But the directors' tones sit at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. In lieu of mirroring one of Ozu's gently spun, subtly uplifting dramas, Kurosawa's film emerges as nothing less than a searing, razor-sharp indictment of the backward attitudes inherent in a single family -- making this film as harsh and scabrous as it is memorable. On an intriguing note: the fact that we witness identical behavior in another onscreen family suggests that Kurosawa may be extending his gaze beyond the confines of one familial unit, and crafting a brazen critique of Japanese attitudes and social structures.
The overall emotional impact of this saga feels devastating thanks in large part to the four-barreled performance of Kagawa, who makes one seethe with anger and indignation at Ryuhei's ignorance. The picture falls short of perfection, however, and its weaknesses partially originate in the script's decision to take Ryuhei to the behavioral extremes that he reaches. In the most upsetting moment of the film, he has a physical brawl with his young son that ends with the child's head injury and hospitalization. The family's ability to achieve a moving reconciliation in the denouement feels satisfying (the final expression on Ryuhei's face could potentially bring tears to one's eyes), but it is difficult to ever empathize to the degree that one would wish, given a patriarch so racked with pride that he begins to destroy himself and those around him; this does work against the impact of the final sequence to some degree. Moreover, the second half loses potency with a few absurd melodramatic developments that feel both manufactured and tacked-on, and add absolutely nothing to the film, including a ridiculous subplot wherein a psychopathic, knife-brandishing thief breaks into the Sasaki home, threatens Megumi, and takes her hostage.
To Kurosawa's credit, however, the entire ensemble does superb work and the narrative retains a very satisfying momentum. Though the material occasionally feels misguided in a few of the particulars, Kurosawa laces many sequences with rich and deeply wise observations about familial dynamics that make the film truly special.
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