Anyone searching for a primer on how to hide the fact from one’s family after losing a job need look no further than Tokyo Sonata, the newest—and timely—film from the genre-hopping Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The movie, presented at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival as the centerpiece of a retrospective for a Kurosawa not named Akira, gives deft pointers for concealing your unemployment, including inviting nonexistent coworkers over for dinner, manipulating mobile phones to ring on their own, and changing suits at a speed that would flutter the cowlick on Superman’s head. The movie’s not perfect, by any means—it stalls just when it should take off—but Tokyo Sonata is a strong, beautiful, stubbornly resilient exploration of a family imperiled by larger shifts in the outside world.
No matter the country, there is undoubtedly no more-dreaded euphemism in 2009: we in the US get “downsized,” the English are made “redundant,” and the Japanese are the victims of “risutora,” the English origin of which (restructuring) suggests its foreign origins. In Japan, a culture whose social rules are enforced less by law than by shame, risutora has resulted in the phenomenon of unemployed salarymen dressing up for work every morning and leaving the house to wander about the city for the day while they try to figure out a way back to respectability. It’s difficult material, and a lesser director would have given into the impulse to dance the dramatic version of the limbo: how low can you go? Kurosawa refuses that route, and while he isn’t averse to crossing over to the dark side, often in scenes that are wince-inducing, it’s his sheer stubborn willfulness that keeps this tale from sliding off into the ocean.
Kurosawa’s protagonist (Ryuhei Sasaki, played by Teruyuki Kagawa) is ignominiously treated to his risutora just as the opening credits finish rolling, and his inability to come clean to his family soon has a way of magnifying his wife’s (Megumi, played by Kyoko Koizumi) and two boys’ (Takashi and Kenji, played by Yu Koyanagi and Kai Inowaki, respectively) problems and multiplying their secrets. Kurosawa cleverly sets the Saskai’s family’s home right beside a pair of Tokyo’s notoriously busy commuter tracks, with the result that no domestic scene is entirely sealed off from the outside world; it’s in this house that the most compelling confrontations of the film play out. These range from the relatively minor efforts of the younger son to learn the piano (if you’ve ever wondered whether Mozart’s genius would have been allowed to flourish had he been limited to practicing on a mute Casiotone, Kurosawa has your answer) to the humorously bizarre, though not entirely unimaginable, volunteering of the older son for the US Armed forces. Sasaki himself undergoes a training of sorts from a veteran of secret unemployment, and his wife goes out and gets herself a driver’s license.
For the first three-quarters of the movie, conflicts play out quietly but grippingly. But just after reaching a moment of painful intersection—with potentially revelatory fallout—the entire drama is quite literally taken hostage, and this is where the movie slips off the rails. For a time, we are jumping from location to location, and events that would have been otherwise dramatic felt muddled and attenuated. I longed for the home by the train tracks. In a short cameo, the veteran Koji Yakusho (Shall We Dance?), his smooth face beginning to gather the lines and contours useful to a skillful, mature actor, manages to inject a desperate energy into the floundering storyline. The ending, however, comes across as an unsatisfying attempt at quiet elevation.
Really, though, the problems of the last quarter of the movie don’t mar the accomplishment of the first three. The performances are uniformly captivating, and—apart from some odd, symbolically heavy-handed dialogue—utterly convincing. Teruyuki Kagawa plays his denial and frustration well, withholding stronger emotions for use in scenes where they would count most. Yu Koyanagi, bound for the front lines, is strong both with and without hair; and Kai Inowaki plays the younger boy likeably, without resorting to Macauley Caulkin-style cuteness. But the center of the traditional Japanese household is mother, and so it’s fitting that Kyoko Koizumi’s role, both in the script and in performance, anchors the whole. In an understated way, the weight of all of those conflicts is carried on her shoulders, and she delivers with grace and subtlety.
Given the current economic climate, my first instinct coming upon a story revolving around job loss was to lower my eyes and walk quickly past. I’m glad I didn’t.