Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata lurches from one scene to the next with the gait of Frankenstein’s monster–a style of locomotion that is not unexpected, considering that the writer-director made his name with horror films. To date, he has filled the screen with cybernetic zombies, rampaging jellyfish, amnesiac murderers under hypnotic control; and the off-balance rhythm in which he has told their stories has carried into this new film, even though it’s a comedy of desperation about a family of near-perfect middle-class drabness.
The paterfamilias (Teruyuki Kagawa) is a short, thick-chested salaryman with bulging eyes and a wide, glum mouth–a frog, you’d think, waddling about in a business suit–who loses his job in the film’s first scene. The wife and mother (Kyoko Koizumi) is a slender, pretty flower, stuck in a pot and left to wilt in a sunless house. The college-age son (Yu Koyanagi) wears his hair samurai-style and makes a point of returning home only when it suits him–affectations that can’t disguise his status as a day laborer who hands out leaflets on street corners. This leaves the younger son (Kai Inowaki) to be the rule-breaker in the family. A gawky grade-schooler, he rebels by taking piano lessons on the sly.
This isn’t the stuff of nightmares; but Kurosawa makes the scenes stagger even so, with edits that can go from a soft, shadowed, lingering close-up of the wife’s dreamy face to a garishly lit tracking shot of the husband crashing into a pile of garbage, and another, and another. “It lives!” Kurosawa might cry, looking upon the monster he’s galvanized: this unhappy but orderly family, which gradually becomes chaotic and even more unhappy.
Then, against all odds, the film concludes with three minutes of spun moonlight.
Smooth and fanciful, a little bit melancholy but a lot more hopeful, the surprise ending of Tokyo Sonata might come across as unbelievable if it weren’t for the utter plausibility of the preceding two hours of shocks and bumps, which don’t rely on the metaphors that are the stock in trade of horror movies but instead arouse disquiet (and mirth) from a recognizable here and now. The time- ly setting is a Japan in the grip of recession, where salarymen whose jobs have been outsourced wait silently in the stairwells of employment bureaus, only to be told, “It’s 100 percent impossible you’ll match your previous job.” All Kurosawa needs to punch up this situation is a touch of exaggeration: a doubling and tripling of the figure of the main salaryman (who keeps meeting other versions of himself) and an intensification of his sense of shame, to the point that he lies to his family. Rather than lose his domestic authority–the only kind he’s got left–he puts on a suit every day and tells them he’s going to work.
In his dumb, stolid way, he’s trying to maintain an outmoded way of life, which Kurosawa sums up, and perhaps sends up, in a “typically Japanese” conceit reminiscent of an Ozu film: a railway runs close by the family’s house. But it’s too late now for Ozu’s subtlety and discretion; Kurosawa’s trains rattle right past the window and light up the interior like a strobe. No wonder the rest of the family wants to break out of the traditional arrangement: the younger son by taking his covert piano lessons, the older son by enlisting in the US Army (another little exaggeration) and the wife by getting a driver’s license she knows she might never use. Her big secret is that she sneaks out to visit auto showrooms; her dream is a new convertible. Then calamity strikes, she finds herself behind the wheel, and the many roads that have been running through the film’s background suddenly come front and center.