On what feels like a compete whim, a middle-aged company man is abruptly fired from his well-heeled Tokyo job. Too ashamed to tell his family, he continues his routine of leaving ‘for work’ each day, dressed in a suit and tie. While his search for employment flounders, his wife and sons slip into their own isolated troubles – unaware of the household’s impending financial ruin.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is best known in the West for 2001 horror flick Pulse, but the credit crunch drama of Tokyo Sonata is far scarier than any supernatural chiller. There is something unsettlingly close to home about the domestic trials faced by Ryûhei Sasaki and his clan. Their fall from economic stability could happen to any of us, and yet the precise nature of their suffering is intrinsically Japanese. It’s not the lack of money that threatens the family, but rather an honour-bound culture that denies them the strength to confront their problems.
The film’s tone is typified by Ryûhei’s friend, Kurosu (Kanji Tsuda) – another jobless suit who programs his mobile phone to automatically ring five times each hour. This theatrical gesture initially seems to be a clownish running gag, yet it becomes an increasingly sad detail with each repetition. These characters face a situation that borders on the ridiculous; it could almost be funny, if it weren’t so damn heartbreaking.
And yet Kurosawa refuses to wallow in bleakness. The story he tells is tragic but it never dissolves into melodrama, achieving a balance that proves to be utterly enthralling. As the youngest of the Sasakis uncovers a musical talent, the director permits his characters a redemption of sorts. His conclusion is neither a funereal hammer blow nor a cop-out happy ending, but rather a fitting end to a hugely moving drama.
Winner of the ‘Un Certain Regard’ Jury Prize at Cannes.
Disturbingly believable in the current economic climate.
A painful yet beautiful experience.