Thursday, March 12, 2009

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata

In the 1990’s Japan experienced something almost entirely unprecedented for post-war generations: economic stagnation. After missing out on the good times of the last decade, one of the world’s most productive, best educated work forces remain plagued with unemployment and underemployment. Such a fate befalls the protagonist of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

The domestic drama of Sonata might seem like a distinct departure for Kurosawa (Kiyoshi), who made his international reputation as a leading J-horror and yakuza filmmaker. The harrowing disintegration of the Sasaki family unit will probably be oft likened to a horror story by critics, and the comparison is reasonably apt. As the film opens, Ryuhei Sasaki is a respected purchasing manager for a large corporation, but by the end of the day, he will be brusquely laid-off as his former position outsourced to China.

While the looming economic implications are hardly inconsequential, Sasaki’s greatest concern is his potential loss of authority as the head of his household. Hoping it will be a short-term subterfuge, Sasaki joins an invisible army of the unemployed who leave for work in the morning as if nothing were wrong, only to spend the day queuing in job centers and eating charity lunches.

The problem is Sasaki does not really fool anyone. They can sense something is wrong and could hazard a pretty fair guess as to what. As an arbitrary exercise of his failing power, Sasaki forbids his youngest son Kenji from pursuing the piano lessons he had been taking surreptitiously, using his lunch money. With the eldest son enlisting in the American military (permissible under a fictional change in law) and his wife Megumi increasingly embarrassed by his behavior, Sasaki’s family is already in endanger of fracturing irreparably Then a sudden act of insanity plunges them into a surreal dark night of the soul.

By and large though, the nightmares of Sonata will be only too real to audiences in these times of economic uncertainty—though perhaps accentuated in Japan by the country’s rigid social structure. Yet arguably, Sonata’s greatest tragedy is Sasaki’s denial of Kenji’s talent, considered that of a true prodigy by his teacher, Kaneko-san (played by the popular actress Haruka Igawa), the only encouraging presence in his life. For all the high drama and bitter angst he marshals, Kurosawa’s conclusion is perfectly understated—both a beautiful and absolutely damning display of Kenji’s sensitive virtuosity.

As Sasaki, Teruyuki Kagawa absolutely personifies pathetic alienation. He seems to be specializing in roles of quiet desperation, having recently appeared in Tokyo! as the Hikikomori shut-in, and as one of the pitiful fanboys in Kisaragi, seen during the Japan Society’s film festival. Truly, his precipitous decline is disturbing to watch. However, Kyoko Koizumi’s haunting performance as the dignified mother trying to hold her family together against a tide of mounting chaos is what ultimately defines Sonata.

Relentlessly naturalistic save for a dark detour into the bizarre, Sonata is a merciless film, but there is no denying its power. Uniformly well acted and sharply observed, it is a finely crafted work that should take on additional resonance for American audiences as domestic markets continue their historic free fall unimpeded. It opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Film Center and the Lincoln Plaza.