Tokyo Sonata ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

A woman, on her hands and knees, attempts to scrub away the rain that has poured in from the storm outside. The woman (a mother? A wife? A maid?) shuts the open door from which the water has entered, before deciding to re-open it and allow the rain to continue it’s original trajectory. She sits silently and watches as, once again the water begins to flood. And so, begins Tokyo Sonata, a bleak and blackly comic portrait of the Japanese family patriarchy in deep disarray.

The working man is disposable. In a world of corporatism where the free market is king, what’s one more man fired? When we first meet family patriarch Ryûhei Sasaki he is being disposed of. ‘What skills do you have to accompany us in the future?’, his boss asks. The answer is none, in the next scene he collects his things and is cast out like Adam from the garden of Eden doomed to the streets of a Japan in which his new lowly position of unemployed makes him less than dirt. Director Kiboyashi Kurosawa is famous for disturbing psychological horrors, most notably his ghostly masterpiece 'Kairo'. Here he views unemployment through the lens of a horror maestro, causing what may have been a paint by the numbers family-drama to transform into a nightmarish Hades of unemployment lines, thankless jobs and menial tasks.

A dry streak of irony and pitch-black humour help to balance the films weighty-tone. At one point Sasaki meets an old school friend Kurosu, also recently unemployed. Terrified of letting his wife know of his current working position, Kurosu has kept up an elaborate lie in which he receives fake phone calls 4 times an hour. There is also a rather surreal segment in which Sasaki’s wife (the ‘maid’ from earlier) begins an incendiary relationship with a bumbling thief who had previously attempted to take her hostage. If it all sounds rather melodramatic, that’s because, in a way, it very much is, however in the hands of Kurosawa he is able to transform these character’s actions from an outlandish farce and into a very tragic and very real calamity.

As always Kurosawa’s sense of framing is impeccable. Mise en scène is used effectively to establish key themes which feed into the over-arching narrative, for example we see at one point, a succession of schoolkids walking to school slowly merge into the path of the businessmen walking to work. The sound design is also excellent too, by using music sparsely, Kurosawa is able to create highly emotional moments to scenes that would be otherwise very understated. For example at one point, Sasaki pleads with some omnipotent power to let him be able to 'start again'. His cries are accompanied by the deeply moving yet subtle hum of a droning violin. It’s a key and heartbreaking point in the film and one made all the more devastating by Kurosawa's subtle direction.

Sasaki is a pitiful character and one portrayed brilliantly by the very talented Teruyuki Kagawa who can be seen playing a vicious serial-killer in Kurosawa’s 2016 horror 'Creepy', it’s a testament to his range that he can play both characters with such superb realism. Over the course of the film Sasaki’s predicament becomes increasingly desperate and his mannerisms and behaviours in turn, grown increasing childish, at one point when challenged by his youngest son, he accidentally pushes him down the stairs in the same careless manner a child may break their toy.

In a satire of Japan’s current situation, Tokyo Sonata is brilliant and ruthless, in the context of an enjoyable film, perhaps many will find Sonata heads to far down an incredibly bleak rabbit hole that it fails to re-emerge in the films intended (albeit only some-what) hopeful ending. It is also a scathing critique of the Japanese people’s current social attitudes, be those attitudes surrounding the military, schooling, or the ever increasing threat of Americanised western influence. Either one, Sonata goes straight for the jugular. I found it thrilling.