The wreckage of late capitalism is on display in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's creepy family drama, Tokyo Sonata (2008). One gets the feeling from this movie that the shock of Asia's financial crisis never went away. It haunts this film. The Japanese, it seems, are dealing with the same consequences of globalization as America: Jobs outsourced to China and India, youth with no prospects, a workforce beset with an existential crisis of faith. Kurosawa's movie is drenched in a striking anomie that all begins with economics. The world, it seems, is moving on.
The story here finds salariman Ryuhei downsized from his company. His boss asks him what his skill set is and what he can contribute if they keep him on, but Ryuhei can't even answer him. He's been a minor functionary for so long that he no longer knows what makes him valuable, if he even is. Shamed, he continues to dress in a suit and tie for work every morning as he lines up for unemployment, then hangs around a soup line where he meets another unemployed salariman who, like Ryuhei, puts on a great show of being a busy businessman. Ryuhei's family is none the wiser, though he seems a bit more high strung and testy. Megumi, his wife, dutifully keeps house in spite of her own dawning discontent with the role of housewife, while his sons have crises of their own. Their oldest son, Takashi wants to join the American military as a means of finding opportunity (this film posits a fictional, but plausible scenario where a recruiting strapped military takes volunteers from pacifist Japan), while their youngest son, Kenji, is not getting along with his teacher and wants to take piano lessons. Kenji pockets his lunch money and pays for the lessons on the sly, even though his father expressly forbids the lessons. The film gives more or less equal weight to the stories of all of these characters, especially once the whole facade of a traditional Japanese family comes crumbling down. That happens once Megumi spots her husband in the soup line one day. She keeps it to herself for a while until Ryuhei discover's Kenji's forbidden piano lessons, when she throws it in his face to rebuke his patriarchal authority.
This all sounds like a "this is how we are" slice of life, but this film is a lot weirder than that. There are several turns of the story that take the film in unforeseen directions. It's best that the viewer discover these on her own, because this is a movie that constantly surprises. Kurosawa follows his own imp of the perverse, so this is NOT an Ozu-esqe family drama. It shades a little bit into the Gothic in a way that would be overcooked in another movie, but which is suitably subdued by the rigor of Kurosawa's deadpan direction. Kurosawa honed his craft on upscale horror movies, and the techniques he developed for creeping dread work just as well when applied to melodrama.
I should mention that the environment in which all of this takes place is vitally important to the mood of the film. The Tokyo envisioned by this movie is recognizably the same haunted Tokyo of the director's Pulse, populated by walking dead men, metaphorically. It has the same oppressive mood of anomie. There's a wonderful scene where Ryuhei's friend, Kurosu, the other unemployed salariman, gives up on Japan and on its economic dreams and falls into a procession of other workers, a procession that has a whiff of the next world. It's a procession of the damned. In the next scenes, Ryuhei discovers that Kuroso has killed himself and his wife rather than keep up his facade and live with his shame. Most of the film is composed of shots defined by architecture and geometric framing. This shot is typical, in which the characters are arranged symbolically (Ryuhei is alone on one side of the table, while his family is opposite) in a frame defined by the shelf in the foreground:
The way Kurosawa shoots the movie suggests that you can't divorce the characters from Tokyo; it defines them. For their part, Kurosawa's actors are down with the program (except, perhaps, for Kurosawa regular Kôji Yakusho (though more about his role, I will not say). Kyôko Koizumi is particularly wonderful as Megumi, who starts as a devoted wifey, arrives at a point where she says to her husband, "Screw your authority," embarks on a mad adventure, and somehow finds her way back. Koizumi plays all of this with a subtle grace that allows the audience to believe all of it, even the more outre turns of her story.
All of this has the potential to end with horror and, for a while, it seems that that's where it's headed. But this is pointedly not a horror movie. In the end, it finds some measure of grace. Ryuhei comes to terms with his family, and they with him, and even though they may not be happy, the masks are off.