The name Kiyoshi Kurosawa might not conjure up thoughts of familial melodrama, but the master of existential horror has brought his typically ambiguous plotting and clever, offbeat sense of humor into a whole new realm with Tokyo Sonata. As distant a departure as this may seem for the director, it does, at times, have the sensation of a horror film, albeit one tempered by an observational eye for the mundane yet humane and tragic proceedings of a Tokyo family. Kurosawa, who has never been afraid of bucking genre conventions, continues that trend here, taking the fractured 21st-century family and dispersing them in wildly unexpected and fascinating directions.
Tokyo Sonata opens as a traditional family drama with everything seemingly intact and the seeds of unhappiness lying in wait inside each member of the family. Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) and Megumi’s (Kyoko Koizumi) marriage appears to be one of content resignation; their two children Kenji (Inowaki Kai) and Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) are distant yet respectful. A familiar premise indeed, but Kurosawa examines their dysfunctionality in unique, revelatory ways. The small cracks we see at the beginning start to widen once Ryuhei loses his job and, due to the pressures on the traditional Japanese patriarch, does not inform his family. From this point on, the film diffuses with centrifugal force taking each character on an unexpectedly strange journey and seemingly innocuous events – Kenji taking piano lessons, Takashi joining the military, Ryuhei secretly working as a janitor – slowly take on a life of their own.
At first, it seems like the kind of expansive emotional terrain you might expect from a more conventional melodrama, but the characters eventually break away from each other like shrapnel. Kurosawa never pinpoints the epicenter of the explosion, but instead frames their story as a microcosm of the problems that face the new, fragmented urban Japanese family unit under the thumb of global capitalism. Ryuhei‘s unemployment is especially effective in conveying the absurd contradictions between archaic traditions and modern reality. Kurosawa leavens this tragic state with humor, juxtaposing a handful of well-dressed but jobless businessman with the homeless in a lunch line day after day – each man too afraid and prideful to admit his loss, as that would mean complete failure as a husband and father.
The image of the weakened patriarch permeates the film, as every other family member challenges his authoritarian rule, whether right to his face like Takashi when he joins the military or behind his back like Megumi and Kenji. In documenting the crumbling state of traditional family values, Kurosawa doesn’t allow things to become too somber, using various tonal shifts, from deadpan comedy to grim realism to a bizarre third-act flight of fancy, to provide the film with levity as it breezily transitions between characters and their disparate situations. As per usual, Kurosawa fashions himself a master of tone and pacing and uses the full two hours to craft a tender, heart-wrenching yet entirely unconventional family drama – a film that effectively examines both the familial conflicts in Japan’s transitioning society and the wondrous avenues each individual within the family explores.