Tokyo Sonata illustrates 21st century anxieties, zeitgeist

By Steve Sedlak

The movies “Tokyo March” (1929), “Tokyo Story” (1953) and “Tokyo Twilight” (1957) are classics of the Japanese cinema, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2008 “Tokyo Sonata” is the most recent addition to the Tokyo-titled family line. In the film, Kurosawa, who is mostly known for action flicks and thrillers, composes a brilliantly disguised commentary on the state of the modern nuclear family. Whether the forces that rend the family apart are society, economics, or just human nature is equally up for individual interpretation.”Tokyo Sonata” is the story of the Sasakis, a middle class family in Tokyo, Japan. The father, Ryuhei, loses his administrative job at a sports medicine company after it gets shipped off to the cheap labor paradise of China. Embarrassed, Ryuhei returns home without a word to his wife, Megumi, about getting fired. Ryuhei stands in line for hours in the coming days at “Hello Work!” – a social welfare program meant to help the unemployed find jobs. Ryuhei is offered work as a convenience store clerk, but he indignantly declines to take the position.

Meanwhile, the Sasaki children, Kenji and Takashi, find themselves swept into the troubling zeitgeist of the late 2000s as well. Takashi, who has just graduated college, decides to join the U.S. Army and is deployed to the Middle East. Kenji, an elementary school student, starts embezzling his lunch money to pay for piano lessons. Ryuhei and Megumi oppose Takashi’s going to the Middle East, but know they cannot stop him. Megumi supports Kenji’s piano lessons, but when Ryuhei finds out he brutalizes his child. Nevertheless, Kenji’s teacher encourages him to try out for an arts magnet school. Kenji’s tryout is the film’s quiet finale.

A couple of days after Ryuhei throws his kid down the stairs a la “Gone with the Wind,” the Sasaki residence is invaded by a ski-masked man. Megumi is taken as a hostage by the hooded hoodlum after she reveals that not only is there no cash in the house, but also that the family bank account is pretty much at zero yen. The duo’s getaway via an expensive French import automobile breaks the tragic mood of the film’s first hour and veers towards farce.

Released in September 2008 in Japan, the film could not have predicted the coming months better. By the time I had a chance to see “Tokyo Sonata” in May 2009, the film had already taken on a new poignancy. “Tokyo Sonata” is indeed about Japan, but it’s also about a new emotional, social, and economic terrain that has sprung up around us – and is increasingly more difficult to navigate.

As the film unfolds, it’s hard not to search for motivations. What is causing all of this havoc? What is tearing this family unit apart? To say it is only economics would ignore Takashi’s irrational decision to go and fight for the U.S. To say it is only emotion or human nature would ignore the trauma of Ryuhei’s getting “restructured.” To say it is only society would ignore Kenji’s mysteriously intense desire to learn how to play the piano.

“Tokyo Sonata” is at best bittersweet in its final outlook. The heart of the film – which all the while alternates between tragedy and farce – is the final five minutes. Kenji is allowed to try out for the arts magnet school his teacher suggested, and his parents sit in the audience of his audition. Ryuhei and Megumi are stunned as Kenji plays perfect rendition of “Claire de Lune” (also note: this is perhaps the only time this song has ever been placed correctly in a film, sorry “Ocean’s 11”).

But maybe the ending is the most tragic moment in the entire film. It bleeds itself in its own pale hope. The early modernist styling of Claude Debussy’s composition suggests a sublime interiority. As the world outside falls apart under the stresses of neo-liberalism, globalism and all the other -isms, “Tokyo Sonata” suggests we turn in to ourselves – and the most delicate of artistic expressions.