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Unlikely Beauty: Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Tokyo Sonata"

Indiewire By Chris Wisniewski | Indiewire March 10, 2009 at 4:50AM

[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
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[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]

When Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Tokyo Sonata" debuted at last year's Cannes Film Festival, the Dow Jones Industrial average was north of 12000, and the U.S. unemployment rate was a mere five-and-a-half percent. A year later, as Kurosawa's lovely, bleak family melodrama gets its stateside release, we are bracing for the possibility of our own lost decade of soaring joblessness, deflation, and zombie banks. However specific Kurosawa's evocation of Japan's ongoing economic crisis may be, American viewers are likely to find something discouragingly familiar in the film when, a few minutes in, Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa), a director of administration at a nondescript company, loses his job, as Kurosawa's camera lingers behind him, outside an office door.

Like the protagonist in Laurent Cantet's "Time Out" and Tom Wilkinson's character in "The Full Monty," Ryuhei reacts to the layoff by pretending he's still employed. The other members of the family, seemingly oblivious to his deception, are each left to contend with their own alienation: younger son Kenji (Inowaki Kai) develops an adversarial relationship with his teacher and longs to take piano lessons; seventeen-year-old Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) drifts aimlessly in and out of the family home at all hours of the day; and Ryuhei's wife, Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), struggles to keep the family together with tempura and homemade donuts.

Ryuhei's desperation is the focal point of the film's first hour. Kurosawa follows him as he stands in line for free food, wastes the day away in a library, and finds himself forced to sing karaoke in a job interview. But Ryuhei's corrosive lie exposes the tenuousness of the overall family dynamic as well. One night, Ryuhei comes home late after a fake business dinner with a similarly unemployed friend. Megumi, dozing on the couch, asks her husband to pull her up so she can come to bed, but he breezes past so quickly he doesn't hear the request. She repeats her question, realizing too late that she's speaking to an empty room.

Kurosawa resists close-ups through much of the film, instead shooting his characters from a distance with a keen attention to the spaces they inhabit (in moments, the nod in the direction of Ozu in the film's title creeps into Kurosawa's aesthetic). In one scene, as Kenji, Megumi, and Ryuhei eat dinner, Kurosawa frames them with a shelf running right above their heads and a staircase cutting across the table, bisecting the space between them. Geometrically, the composition relegates each of the three characters to either side of the frame and closes in on them from above. Though they occupy the same space, they are effectively, claustrophobically isolated in a shot that is typical for its precision and insight. Brilliantly directed by Kurosawa and beautifully photographed by Akiko Ashizawa, "Tokyo Sonata" suggests vast emotional undercurrents through mise-en-scene and camera placement.

"Tokyo Sonata" is such an impressive piece of filmmaking that it almost doesn't matter when the film threatens to derail midway through its second hour. Tonally, the movie strikes an uncomfortable, constantly shifting balance between the deadpan and the earnest before taking a turn towards the nearly fantastic. As "Tokyo Sonata" builds towards a climax, one central character is left for dead on a curbside and another is kidnapped and taken (seemingly) to the ends of the earth. Both wonder ponderously -- and a bit pretentiously -- whether it's possible to start over; the answer is apparently no.

Kyoko Koizumi, who spends much of the film's first half in the background of shots, reacting to the growing desperation of the characters who surround her, largely succeeds in selling the movie's more audacious third-act twists, and her Megumi emerges as "Tokyo Sonata's" most compelling, fully realized character. Kurosawa, however, chooses to conclude the film with Kenji, as he performs Debussy's "Claire de Lune" on the piano. In the hands of another filmmaker, the scene could play as cloying or sentimental, but Kurosawa's attention to light and the way people occupy space is so astute that this last scene functions as refreshing counterpoint: rather than again isolate him, this sequence finds Kenji in a vast, bright open space surrounded by an audience that gathers at a respectful distance. As a matter of plot, this final scene suggests something rather vague about the transformative power of music and the promise of youth. Visually and cinematically, though, it offers heartening reprieve from the purposefully oppressive images that precede it, and further proof of Kurosawa's assured, deliberate artistry.

[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer and a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly.

This article is related to: In Theaters