By Michael Koresky
Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, Regent Releasing
For Kiyoshi Kurosawa, obliqueness often seems to be the order of the day. But hiding beneath his more forthrightly abstract films, like Barren Illusion, Charisma, and Bright Future, and lying closer to the surface of more generically situated works like Cure, Pulse, and Doppelganger, is the beating heart of a true melodramatist. If a film like Bright Future, with its loaded but still hard-to-suss-out metaphors (jellyfish equals social malaise…what now?), keeps its central character conflicts floating in a pool of visual expressionism and abstract ideas on generational anxiety, one could say it does so mostly to curb its own underlying moralism. The same could be said of Cure and Pulse, expertly crafted horror films, respectively, of the serial killer and ghost variety, that make grand, sweeping statements about the state of contemporary Japan, mainly its apathetic citizenry, which in both cases point towards apocalypse. Cure posits murder itself as a contagious social disease; and Pulse, though its ability to spook the viewer is nearly unparalleled (its game of withhold and reveal pays off the best horror dividends of any film this decade), is both naïve and chastising in its prophesizing of a technological doomsday, and, unsurprisingly, it has not aged well.
That Kurosawa masks his social critique in ghostly, vague affectation often gives him the tag of Abstract Auteur, though compared with willfully obscure directors like Lucrecia Martel and Claire Denis, he’s far more digestible. His latest film, Tokyo Sonata, moves away from his recent forays into toying with horror and sci-fi conventions, but it’s no less generic. Playing off the Japanese domestic drama, even seemingly purposely referencing Ozu in its title, Tokyo Sonata applies the trademark Kiyoshi Kurosawa tactics (hazy character motivations, eerily alienating mise-en-scène) to distract from an essentially straightforward narrative. Surely this is a film of immense misdirection, but Kurosawa’s always been something of a trickster, and Tokyo Sonata tricks us in an occasionally edifying way: it makes us look so closely at recognizable people—in this case one urban family living in quiet malcontent—that they become unfamiliar, only to then remind us that they were not all that different from us in the first place.
Kurosawa and director of photography Akiko Ahizawa accomplish this with a stringent, but never overbaked, shooting style; the director here has identifiable strategies (the camera often peers from behind shelves and through chairs; background action is often more narratively significant than foreground), but he never overemploys them. Tokyo Sonata exists in a world of constricting interiors, whether it’s the sickly fluorescents of office cubicles or the tight, drab kitchens and living rooms of the Sasakis, where mom Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), dad Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa), and young son Kenji (Inowaki Kai) try to interact amidst growing misery; a fourth family member, teenage son Takashi, played by Yu Koyanagi, is so infrequently present he at first seems like a lodger. Kurosawa approaches this intimate space, in his first shot, by gliding his camera across it, while papers are blown around by a wind and rainstorm that’s come in through an open door—the point is clear: no matter how much the family will try to keep their things in order, outside forces are about to disrupt their calm. Does Kurosawa thus mean to shirk his characters’ responsibility for their own lives, positing that there’s something beyond their control—a combustible social mechanism—that means to tear them apart? Despite the sense of grandiose statement-making that hovers over Tokyo Sonata like a black cloud, this film, for perhaps the first time in Kurosawa’s oeuvre, seems largely driven by its personalities, and it’s a relief. Though hollowed out by circumstance, these are hardly traces of people—like those ashen outlines left on the walls after human beings disappear in Pulse, a handy visual aid for how the director often creates character portraiture.
Frequently, people in Kurosawa’s films seem headed for suicide, or at least the director creates dramatic circumstances that represent such a general malaise, such an unraveling of the so-called social fabric, that there appear to be few options. The images of young people jumping from high buildings in Pulse particularly resonated not just as a reflection of Japan’s widely publicized high suicide rate but also because the director completely realized a despairing world in which death simply became part of the mise-en-scène. In Tokyo Sonata, Kurosawa establishes an atmosphere of late-capitalist doom right off the bat (Ryuhei, his back to the camera, is laid off from his well-salaried office job before we barely have time to get to know who he is or what he does), and then lets his characters wander through its gray aftermath. Enacting a scenario not unlike that of Laurent Cantet’s twilit Time Out, Ryuhei does not tell his wife or family about his being fired, instead going out daily to stand in line at unemployment agencies and to wander a landscape populated with similarly out-of-work folk, one of whom, a former high-school friend of Ryuhei’s, has his cell phone set to ring five times an hour so that he can be called away on “business” and look not only busy but essential to an imaginary workforce.
Meanwhile, Kurosawa also takes care to follow the daily rituals of Kenji, who, when unfairly caught passing manga from one student to another during class, retaliates by embarrassing the teacher in front of the entire room. Yet beneath the child’s seemingly vindictive personality hides something more thoughtful: he soon becomes fixated on the idea of taking piano lessons, and while at first it’s unclear whether he simply has a crush on the attractive music teacher or he truly wants to learn piano, Kenji eventually proves he has the soul of a budding artist. The boy’s desire to express himself musically is violently tempered by Ryuhei, who so irrationally opposes piano lessons that Kenji, like his father, must conduct his music routine in secret. Simultaneously, wayward Takashi decides to enlist with the American military to fight in Iraq (a handful of young Japanese men did in fact sign up to fight, but reportedly the Japanese Defense Agency ensured the national media made little of it; in the film however, it seems to be all that’s ever on TV), a choice also forbade by Ryuhei, as well as Megumi; nevertheless he bids them farewell and, save a strange, nightmarish interlude, departs from the narrative altogether.
Of course, Megumi patiently, stoically stands beside all this behavior, and though this initially grows maddening—where are the mother’s own desires, wishes, fears, beyond the family unit?—she ultimately becomes the film’s true protagonist. If the first half of Tokyo Sonata is definitively about fathers and sons and the breakdown of social rationality in the absence of strong authority figures (“You can ignore me and I’ll ignore you too,” Kenji’s teacher hopelessly guilt trips the boy in response to his lack of respect), then the second half shifts gears to the mother’s point of view—a natural outgrowth. What happens to a family in an entrenched patriarchal society when the father can no longer “provide” for it? In Kurosawa’s hands, this becomes an opportunity to go lightly surreal, and he surveys the family’s dissolution as a journey into a twilight zone.
Kurosawa’s final-act detour into the bizarre is both a needed release and something of a letdown, both because the manner in which he does it is rather perfunctory (did he have to have Megumi find catharsis by absconding with an attractive criminal—played by Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho, no less?) and because it might have seemed even more subversive for Kurosawa to do the unexpected and stick to his film’s previously only implicit peculiarities and subtle alienating effects. Instead Megumi ends up in a shack by a barely illuminated sea, while Kenji and Ryuhei must individually traverse pitch-black urban nighttimes. Separated, have they gained power or completely lost it? “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if my whole life was a dream so far and suddenly I awaken?” Megumi asks late in the film, but she might as well be asking it from a dream world, from which she’ll soon be yanked back to reality.
Kurosawa’s climactic poetic expression of that reality, expressed via the melody of “Clair de Lune,” as performed by Kenji at a recital, is both shrouded in doubt and imbued with emotional clarity. It’s a confounding conclusion, as it means to claim that there’s indeed a harmony that functions as a calming force beneath the world’s irrationality, while simultaneously seeming to assert that the spaces between its characters are irreconcilable. Certainly if there’s anything in this world beautiful enough to fill in the jagged crevices between people it’s the elegant ebbing and flowing of Debussy, but while Kurosawa is hardly suggesting music as a restorative cure-all, this ultimate triumph of art seems both too much and too little at once. Yet Kenji’s performance at the piano relates a tenable, sad irony: It’s merely a note of optimism at the end of a dark tunnel for Ryuhei and Megumi, but for Kenji it’s the blossoming of a career and a possible escape.