Kiyoshi Kurosawa made his reputation with offbeat horror films like Cure and Pulse, which emphasized creeping dread over overt shock. Now, with Tokyo Sonata, Kurosawa has moved from not-quite-horror to not-quite-satire. In telling the story of a salaryman who loses his job, Kurosawa riffs on crippling conformity, dysfunctional family dynamics, and economic desperation—but all so subtly that at times it’s hard to tell if he’s joking. When Kurosawa shows students and workers merging into a single pedestrian stream, or a boss asking a prospective employee to prove his worth by singing karaoke, or a Japanese college dropout enlisting in the U.S. military, are these exaggerations for comic effect, or a cut-to-the-quick depiction of a world in recession?
Teruyuki Kagawa gives a strong performance as Tokyo Sonata’s fired administrator, a man so entrenched in his corporate identity that he answers questions about a recent purchase order even as he packs up his desk. While Kagawa’s eldest son pursues a career as a soldier-for-hire, his younger son foments rebellion at school by outing his teacher as a reader of erotic manga, and at home by spending his lunch money on forbidden piano lessons. Meanwhile, Kagawa’s wife—unaware that her husband has been reduced to working as a shopping mall janitor—is looking into buying new luxury items her household can no longer afford.
As always, Kurosawa masterfully controls his film’s framing and sound design, and as always, the painstakingly precise mise-en-scene can feel a little overdone at times (like when Kagawa gets fired while a storm gusts outside the office window). A succession of bizarre third act twists also pushes Tokyo Sonata towards the overly pointed. But so much about the movie is laced with real wit and compassion, from the way Kagawa learns from an unemployed old friend how to let go of his shame without losing his dignity, to the way the hero’s frustration with his downward-spiraling life leads him to push around his youngest son. There’s no better illustration of how Tokyo Sonata balances humor, pathos and social criticism than a scene where Kagawa’s wife playfully asks her distracted husband to pull her up off the sofa. When he leaves the room without a word, she repeats, with mounting concern, “Somebody please pull me up.”