Tokyo Sonatarecommended viewing

Respect my authority
Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Teruyuki Kagawa, Kyôko Koizumi, Yû Koyanagi, Inowaki Kai
The Setup: 
Man loses his job. His family falls apart.

I saw this a week ago and haven’t really felt compelled to write about it, although I liked it very much and thought it was beautifully done. I didn’t have a lot of interest in it [oh yeah, another wonderful foreign film full of so much feeling and timeless moments, snore] until I saw that it’s directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, responsible for the wonderful Japanese horror film Pulse [inspiration for its wretched American remake], Cure, and Bright Future, an off-kilter little drama about disaffected youth in Japan. This movie is most like Bright Future, both in tone and the way it concerns itself with a few characters while also making comments about Tokyo society.

Our protagonist, Sasaki, gets fired from his job in one of the first scenes, after his company realizes that they can hire three Chinese for the cost of one Japanese worker. His boss tells him that they would be happy to keep him in a job, he just has to tell them what he wants to do. Apparently he couldn’t come up with anything. We also meet his wife, Megumi, older son, Takashi, and younger son, Kenji. Takashi is rarely home, but we have quite a few scenes of domestic comfort as the husband, wife, and younger son gather around the table to eat.

Sasaki gets up, gets dressed, and goes to a local park to hang out, pretending to his wife that he still has a job. He meets up with another guy he knows, also unemployed. There is a food cart there, but you can’t eat from it until you have visited “Hello Job,” this employment firm. Sasaki visits, and it’s a nightmarish, Orwellian environment, people in long lines stretching down circular stairwells, waiting for their number to be called. Sasaki, who was formerly an executive, is offered a job as an overnight security guard, or a manager at an electronics store. He refuses both. His unemployed companion gives him tips on appearing busy and maintaining face. For example, he has programmed his cell phone to ring six times an hour, at which point he pretends to have a conversation with work associates.

Meanwhile Kenji has had a little trouble at school. His teacher tries to chastise him in front of the whole class, and Kenji tells the class that he saw his teacher reading a pornographic comic on the subway. He later tries to apologize to the teacher, but is met with “You ignore me, and I’ll ignore you.” Later he sees a girl taking piano lessons, and asks his parents about it. His father, the only one who knows that the family has to watch every penny they have, refuses. Later, Kenji takes his monthly lunch money and uses it to take piano lessons on the downlow.

Sasaki goes to dinner at his unemployed friend’s house, pretending to be a business associate. When the friend leaves the room to take a “call,” the wife asks Sasaki to tell her that her husband is unemployed. At one point, later, the husband says he feels like men in Tokyo are on a sinking ship, and the women and children have taken all the lifeboats. A few scenes later, we find out that both husband and wife are dead. “A double suicide,” someone who heard about it says, “but one forced the other.” Then Sasaki finally gets an interview with a respectable company, but he is unable to articulate what his abilities are. He ends up humiliatingly singing karaoke at the interviewer’s request. His wife sees him hanging around in the breadline one day.

Eventually Sasaki relents and takes a job as a janitor at a mall. Their older son decides he is going to join the Americans, who are now accepting foreign recruits to fight the war in Iraq. The mom discovers that Kenji has been taking piano lessons, and furthermore, his teacher says he’s somewhat of a prodigy and should go on to a special school. Sasaki beats him to the point where he was to go to the hospital. Megumi lets him know that she knows he’s unemployed. Sasaki says he didn’t tell her and can’t tell Kenji because then he would have no authority as a father.

It ends with a long sequence of the three of them running away in various ways. Kenji runs away, Sasaki finds a wad of cash and spends the night wandering what to do with it, and Megumi is kidnapped by a man who has taken to robbing houses for cash. They end up taking the car to the seashore, the wife deciding that she’ll run away. She says she wishes she would wake up and discover that her whole life has been just a dream, and she is someone else. After a rough night for all of them, the wife says that “you can never be anyone but who you are.” They all return home, and have a meal, like at the very beginning. We see various scenes that show us that they have reconciled themselves to their new life. The film ends with Kenji impressing everyone with his performance at the qualifications for the advanced piano school, which ends the film on a very graceful note of beauty.

It was quite diffuse for me for a while, but now that I have to organize my thoughts on paper, I think it’s about the loss of authority in general, and the personal and psychological effects of that, as well as a larger statement about contemporary Tokyo, and the loss of men’s authority requiring a society-wide reshuffling of the traditional mode of the family. Sasaki feels that he cannot maintain his authority as a father without his job—as if it completely defines him. Twice he is asked what talents he has, and he can’t respond… he has never had to sell himself or compete for anything. We see other men, both the friend and the thief at the end of the film, trying to deal with unemployment in several ways—without having to let anyone know that they have been let go. Even Kenji’s teacher at the beginning is destroyed by the loss of his authority. It’s impossible for the average person to get all the resonances this film would have to someone within that Tokyo culture, but enough can be gleaned that it makes the movie a very satisfying watch.

And yes, all of this has a great resonance to the current American economic crisis, and the general feeling that we are creating a society that doesn’t have any available jobs for the people that live here. A few days after seeing this movie, a New York Times article about a job fair overrun with applicants had a picture of people lined up along a spiral staircase that looked precisely like the identical scenes from this movie. Political ideas the movie has, such as the US now taking recruits from other countries, also ring as true-to-life, if not strictly true.

Ultimately, a thoughtful, intriguing, moving little drama that doesn’t leave you with one central point, but rather an interesting series of impressions forming a vague overall picture that slowly comes more into focus as one thinks about it in the days following.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it’s a very interesting and moving drama.