(Tokyo Sonata opens today at the Landmark Edina Cinema)
The family that broods together stays together...
If, like me, you didn't understand the big fuss about American Beauty ten years ago, consider taking a look-see at Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata, winner of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes in 2008. A meditative drama with spontaneous moments of comedy and a flair for the bizarre, it's one of those rare movies to hit theaters right at the moment in time when its message is most relevant.
Ryûhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) is the patriarch of a moody Japanese family that's falling apart at the seams and languishing in unrealized dreams. When Ryûhei loses his administrative job due to downsizing, the family's issues are amplified to a breaking point, but ironically, it's not through self-destruction that this family copes with anxiety, but self-improvement. Young Kenji rebels against his father and begins secretively taking piano lessons, teenage Takashi volunteers to join Japanese troops in Iraq, and restless mother Megumi looks to escape by purchasing a new car. She can no longer trust Ryûhei to take care of the family, and their already distant relationship is nearly severed completely.
Are families throughout the world currently suffering the same fate as the Sasakis during this global recession? There's no way of really knowing what's being discussed at your neighbor's dinner table, but yes, most likely Tokyo Sonata has painted an earnestly realized portrait of industrialized family life in 2009. Moreover, it offers a stirring portrayal of contemporary Japanese culture, and unlike American Beauty, it does so without winking at the audience. The closest Tokyo Sonata comes to a staged "performance" is its brilliant final scene (which I will only link to here but almost definitely feature in my 2009 Best Scene breakdown).
But the topical urgency exhibited by Tokyo Sonata doesn't necessarily make it a great film. There are some odd changes in tone and toward the end I became worried it was going to go off the rails completely. That last scene really pulled everything together beautifully, however, and despite its flaws Tokyo Sonata is a pensive parable that I appreciated for its affecting insights into Japanese family life.