Mention the name Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and inevitably you'll think of cult horror films such as Kairo, Sakebi (Retribution) and Rofuto (Loft), since his name is synonymously linked with the genre. He's turned in a surprise here sharing keen observations and an astonishing dramatic piece of Japanese society and of the family, showcasing the hallmarks of a great storyteller, being out of his comfort zone.
Whatever nuggets of general knowledge of Japanese society you're familiar with, this story (written by Kurosawa, Sachiko Tanaka and Max Mannix who did the Singapore film Dance of the Dragon) reinforces that notion of the patriarchal society in Japan, where the male is the head of the family (not necessary the household I thought, since the wife controls the purse string submissively handed over by the husband for the running of the household), and that true, real horror comes in the form of the loss of moral authority, standing in society, and face. This horror hits the Sasaki family squarely on the head, and with carefully hidden secrets harboured by each family member, we see how what society holds to be normal, slowly spirals downwards and disintegrates.
Moral authority as shown is a given, and it can be so fragile and easily destroyed. Kenji Sasaki (Inowaki Kai), the youngest son, in a scene with his school teacher, creates havoc by just merely stating the fact that the latter had been seen reading a porn comic on a train. Immediately the students entered into an ill-disciplined frenzy in the class which the teacher has little control over, a signal that he has lost all standing in imparting knowledge to minds that are to be molded.
And in the main arc, face and standing in society are both easily lost as well, which the head of the Sasaki household Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) will discover when he gets retrenched as Director of Administration of a corporation. Being clueless on what to do, and how to break the news to his family (which will translate in equivalent terms into the chaos as seen in the classroom), he keeps mum and goes about his routine, heading toward free food lines and unemployment agencies to find another job. But one can imagine the stature of his previous job, and it never is easy to come to terms in the swallowing of Pride, and the acceptance of lower pay, longer hours, and of course, jobs that seem to belong to the lower rungs.
Teriyuki Kagawa does a superb job in showing this fear and cluelessness of Ryuhei, who has to grapple with the fact that a victim of downsizing unfortunately has to have his expectations correspondingly reduced in tandem as well. Ever once in a while I would think of what I would do if I'm in the same shoes, and hopefully to lessen the impact should one day the same were to happen. Being unprepared on the receiving end of an outsourcing strategy, he got hit pretty hard, and living a lie to keep up the pretense is something quite pathetic.
For all its prim and properness, society can be equally cruel because of the collective fear that hangs over the heads of failures. There are two superbly crafted arcs in Tokyo Sonata, each dealing with failure and the unfortunate ends that were followed to deal with the perceived shame and genuine despair and desperation. One involved Ryuhei's peer who went to the extreme of making himself seem busy with lucrative deals, but is actually sharing the same boat, at wits end since he's a 3-month old unemployed veteran who imparts survival tricks of concealment, and refuge such as the public library (I suppose with its air-conditioning, newspapers, and couches for that quick snooze. The other arc is somewhat of a quirky spin on narrative, with Koji Yakusho playing a comical rookie robber who, as it turns out, had consistently failed in the things he does.
While a patriarchal society, the role of the wife and mother is equally important for the household to function and act as the glue of tolerance within the family. Kyoko Koizumi owned this character of Megumi, as she goes about her routine household chores with nary a complaint, always being there for her family in the preparation of warm meals, never chiding her husband or put him down when she learns of the truth accidentally (well, up to a certain point that is), and always protective of her children, seen from her constant reminder to her husband not to get mad when the children are going to tell him something he would disapprove of, coming to their defence when they get beat, and with reluctance, seeing her eldest son (Yu Koyanagi) off when he signs on with the American military. There's a breaking point in everyone, though of course a mother's love knows no bounds.
Kurosawa's films are always wonderfully framed, and Tokyo Sonata boasts plenty of beautifully designed shots, not only for aesthetic reasons, but some to involve you in the scene as well. I especially liked the way how the dreaded pink slip got issued, where Ryuhei seemed so small, for an appointment of his stature, when called into his boss' office, and being challenged up front on what else he can contribute to the company, being asked to leave in indirect terms, yet with the meaning fully understood.
The routine, impersonal way of the Sasaki family that we see in the beginning, each going about their own thing with nary an interaction other than over the dining table with a missing member, doesn't really get repaired. Some issues can be addressed, others can be accepted, life generally goes on and it's up to us to make the best out of it. The Sasaki family has this brief hiccup in their lives that forms the basis of Tokyo Sonata, and it's something that will both move you and bring about that general awareness of how Japanese society ticks. Definitely highly recommended, and a surprise of a gem from Kiyoshi Kurosawa that's not from his usual forte of works.