DVD Review: TOKYO SONATA
SPOILER WARNING: This article contains plot details for a new movie.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. Unfortunately he has yet to get the attention he deserves in the States. His films are admittedly an acquired taste. I must admit, I didn’t know what to make of them at first. I checked them out after reading an article that fellow fan Martin Scorsese wrote about his films for his blog on DirectTV’s site. And with each film I watched and the more I watched them, the more I liked them.
Usually they are very abstract, bizarre and rely on very subtle story telling (at times even too subtle). They usually give the viewer just enough information to piece together what the films are truly about, which really isn’t straightforward enough for a lot of people. The man is mostly known in the States for his horror films such as the critically acclaimed CURE (Kyua, 1997), PULSE (Kairo, 2001), and RETRIBUTION (Sakebi, 2006).
Kurosawa’s latest film, 2008’s family drama TOKYO SONATA is his first non-genre film since 2003’s BRIGHT FUTURE (Akarui Mirai), and it’s by far the man’s most accessible and straightforward film thus far. And with E1 Entertainment’s Stateside DVD release of TOKYO SONATA, maybe Kurosawa can get some of that credit that the West owes him.
TOKYO SONATA is the story of the Sasakis, an average middle class family living in Tokyo. Things seem to be going as usual until the father is suddenly laid off from his office job, as his employer starts hiring Chinese immigrant workers because they are cheaper. Filled with shame, Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa, the 20TH CENTURY BOYS trilogy, KAIJI: THE ULTIMATE GAMBLER) can’t bear to tell his family and decides to string them along on his severance pay for as long as he possibly can. From there we watch as the Sasaki family slowly crumbles under the weight of Ryuhei’s dishonesty and controlling nature.
Ryuhei’s depression has caused a major behavior change, which puts major strain on his marriage with his wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi, TEN NIGHTS OF DREAMS), as well as their children, twenty-something Takashi (Yu Koyanagi, star of the upcoming ULTRAMAN ZERO THE MOVIE) and young Kenji (Kai Inowaki). Ryuhei’s behavior gets more odd and he’s especially harsher on the two children.
Takashi wants to join the US military and fight in the Middle East as he feels that he owes the US for how much they help Japan. Kenji longs to play the piano and even sneaks off to pay for lessons with his lunch money. Ryuhei will have none of it, even though Takashi can’t seem to see himself doing anything else and Kenji is told he has an incredible natural talent as a musician. This is all because he wants his children to become middle class necktie workers like himself, even though he loses his job and ends up resorting to a janitorial position at the local shopping mall.
The only true friend Ryuhei has is an old classmate named Kurosu (Kanji Tsuda, AUDITION, GAMERA THE BRAVE) who is also unemployed. Kurosu has even figured out an intricate system of lies that he tells his family. He has his phoned programmed to ring several times an hour and even brings Ryuhei to dinner as a “co-worker.” And when Kurosu kills himself and his family, Ryuhei’s world gets all the more bleak.
As the movie unfolds, we see each character confront their own needs for independence. Megumi is taken hostage after a failed robbery by an unemployed man (Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho), she realizes that she enjoys the escape from her day-to-day life and forms an unlikely (yet brief) bond with the man. Kenji attempts to run away and Takashi joins the US military, despite his father’s disapproval. These events all stem from their father’s dishonesty and the way he’s alienated his entire family.
TOKYO SONATA is a true testament to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s diversity as a director. Known for his surreal, artsy, and incredibly bleak horror films, he proves here that he can handle a straightforward family drama just as well.
There’s a lot of good to be said about this film. The acting is fantastic across the board. As great as everyone is, the whole thing would be impossible without Teruyuki Kagawa’s incredible performance as the downtrodden Ryuhei. His facial expressions and mannerisms just give off somebody who has been crushed by the weight of the world. To make a character as controlling and selfish as Ryuhei sympathetic is a real feat and one that Kagawa pulls off brilliantly.
The directing is fantastic as well. Kurosawa keeps things interesting, so the pacing never feels off (a problem that I’ve had with some of his previous films). The way he deconstructs the family is truly fascinating. The director claimed that David Cronenberg’s A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005) was a big influence on TOKYO SONATA, and while the storylines are drastically different, it’s not hard for one to see the similarities. Both films deal with a father’s dishonesty and how his family life starts to disintegrate as a result. Kurosawa’s approach to deconstructing the middle class family is very similar to Cronenberg’s.
Being from the economically troubled state of Michigan, this film really struck a chord with me. The characters in this film remind me of people I know. I know a lot of people who have been laid off (or have relatives who have been). I know even more unemployed people who are struggling to find even a minimum wage job (heck, I’m one of those people as well). For Kurosawa to take Japan’s economic problems and make it relatable to Westerners really shows how well he handles this story. Although “Tokyo” is in the title, this seems like a story that could happen anywhere and will probably be all too familiar to a lot of people. To me, this was the most impressive thing about the film and really elevated it in my eyes. It’s really hard to find something negative to say here. If you’re a fan of Kiyoshi Kurosawa or just a fan of great film in general, I highly recommend TOKYO SONATA.
E1 has given TOKYO SONATA a pretty hefty amount of special features. First up is a one hour Making Of documentary. As the run time suggests, it delves into pretty much every aspect of the movie. From the characters and their relationships to how certain shots were achieved, it pretty much covers everything.
Then there’s a Q & A session with Kurosawa and the actors that lasts about 12 minutes. Its not a bad feature, but it doesn’t really answer anything that the Making Of documentary didn’t already talk about.
There’s also footage from the premiere, which runs about 15 minutes and consists of Kurosawa and the cast addressing the audience. They mostly talk about their characters and how much fun they had working with each other. It’s a nice little piece that shows just how much this film meant to all the players involved.
The last real feature is an 8-minute discussion of the DVD, which is actually pretty amusing. It’s mostly Kurosawa and the cast talking about their favorite scenes, certain things to look for when watching, and what they want the audience to take away from the film.
Rounding off the special features is the theatrical trailer. All in all, E1 really gave TOKYO SONATA a nice package here. Here you have a great film and a disc loaded with cool features. This release is really worth picking up for fans of Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Japanese cinema.