Tokyo Sonata (2009)

Director:  Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Cast:  Teruyuki KagawaKyôko KoizumiYû Koyanagi
Plot:  An ordinary Japanese family slowly disintegrates after its patriarch loses his job at a prominent company.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Un Certain Regard Jury Prize (Cannes).
Runtime:  120min
Rating:  PG for thematic elements and brief strong language.

Just to clear a common misconception, the director of this 2008 Cannes Un Certain Regard Jury Prize winner is in no way related to Akira Kurosawa, one of cinema’s greatest and most influential filmmakers. 

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata is a well-written melodrama set in urban Tokyo. It centers on a family of four whose seemingly peaceful lives take a dramatic U-turn when their father loses his well-paying job. Worse still, he does not tell them about it. Apparently, everyone in the household seems to be unable to communicate effectively with each other.

The film explores the dangers of blind perceptions, mistrust, and hidden secrets in a typical Japanese family. Here, the father is conservative, authoritative and, to a certain extent, even abusive; the mother and the two sons, on the other hand, are adaptive, flexible and open to changes. 

The older son wants to join the American military because he feels Japan cannot provide him with anything hopeful; his younger brother insists on learning the piano after meeting a supportive freelance music teacher. Of course, these desires come under intense scrutiny from their father.

Kurosawa develops the lead characters very vividly, taking time to shape their attitudes toward life and their perceptions toward one another. In general, Tokyo Sonata makes a decent case study of a myriad of communication problems within the smallest unit of society. 

The script is well-thought out and the direction is straightforward. While the film does dwell into melodramatics, its execution does not seem contrived. However, speaking in terms of pathos, Tokyo Sonata lacks the emotional pull of Yojiro Takita’s Departures (2009) or even Yoji Yamada’s Kabei: Our Mother (2008), two recent Japanese melodramas with similar themes.

A sequence late in the film is shot in flashback describing an unexpected scene which leads to a revelation for one of the characters. This flashback seems quite out-of-place (out-of-sorts even) in a film which all this while has been anything but. It disrupts the smooth flow of the narrative and takes the film into a whole new direction which is not as convincing as it appears to be. 

However, on hindsight, the film would have been another conventional Japanese feature if Kurosawa had not dared to venture beyond the standard scope of such a story. Still, it did not work out as well as it should for me.

The final ‘piano recital’ sequence gives proper closure to the film. It features no dialogue, only the evocative sounds of a very touching piano composition passionately played by the younger son. It is quite a remarkable conclusion which strongly suggests possible reconciliation and mutual understanding through the exclusive use of non-verbal expressions. It is perhaps the most stirring sequence in the entire film. 

Tokyo Sonata is a departure for Kurosawa who is more well-known for directing horror films. In spite of that, it is a well-delivered motion picture with its fair share of flaws and outstanding moments.


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