Thoughts on life after the PhD
Tokyo Sonata begins with Ryûhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Nakagawa), a run-of-the-mill salaried worker who is told with little fanfare that his company is moving to China. Made redundant, he loiters in parks and makes perfunctory visits to the unemployment office. His son wants to learn piano, but he flatly refuses–more so out of spite than financial concerns, it would seem. His older son is a disaffected college student working in a miserable part-time job who sees a way out of things through joining the army. His wife suffers quietly. They live in one of those ubiquitous two-story Tokyo houses that is squeezed into a miniscule space between countless convenience stores and vending machines.
During a post-screening Q&A, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa explained that in exploring the family drama that forms the centerpiece of his latest film he had wanted to “move as far away from the horror genre as possible.” Kurosawa is perhaps best known for his horror films, among them Cure, Sakebi (Retribution), and Kairo (Pulse, which was dismally remade for an American audience). For a director who’s become associated with vengeful ghosts and gruesome serial killers, a movie about a salaryman who gets laid off and the problems of his family might indeed seem markedly different. But the horror is still there. If anything, this time it’s more intense–the cold reality of being unemployed in Japan, of being trapped in a family situation that seems stifling and miserable for everyone involved, is a lot scarier than ghosts or monsters.
Ryûhei keeps his unemployment a secret from his family, who we come to realize are all living lives based on deception. As these deceptions are revealed the family begins to disintegrate, encountering obstacles in the second act that veer the film toward absurdist comedy. It’s at this point that Kurosawa almost loses control of his film, but not quite–the ending manages to justify the descent into chaos.
Where Tokyo Sonata succeeds most fully is in its portrayal of the humiliating and painful world of Japanese working life, where millions of men spend half their lives doing nondescript office jobs that leave them with little in the way of transferable skills. Laid off, these men are broken–the company which promised to be family and identity no longer has any use for them, and other companies aren’t interested in new employees over 40. Ryûhei is asked at a job interview to describe his skills. Baffled, he replies, “You mean like singing karaoke?” Like so many salaried workers, he is an expert at being an employee of his company, and little else.
Ryûhei’s old high school friend, also laid off and hanging out in the park to avoid telling his family the truth, has a practical solution–he sets his cell phone to ring five times an hour so that he always looks busy. Ryûhei tells him repeatedly that this is “amazing.” Both men continue to dress in suits, mingling with homeless men and women in the park, lumped in with the other “useless” components of society that Japan refuses to see.
Kurosawa was quick to point out that the film was conceived and produced before the economic crisis was in full swing. While it certainly resonates more strongly in the context of the current economic climate, the tragedies it portrays are less about economics and more about a failed system. It’s a system in which men’s worth and sense of self are measured through their connection to a place of employment, which impacts not only the workers but everyone around them. In the end, the company that promised to be family and friend abandons its children in the pursuit of profit, and the unemployed worker is left to face a real family that views him as a stranger. The struggle is compounded by a harsh economy, but it is the system itself that produces the feelings of loneliness and frustration displayed by every member of Ryûhei’s family.
Tokyo Sonata is quietly affecting, with performances by its four main actors that rarely hit false notes. Though the world it presents is bleak, its message is, like so many of Kurosawa’s other films, ultimately hopeful. The director commented that it is only through complete disintegration that this particular family is able to pick itself back up again, and that as painful as that disintegration may have been it was necessary for their survival. The same could be said for Japan’s employment system.
writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)
tales of travel, research, and life
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