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.
Click here to read the rest of Chris Wisniewski’s review of Tokyo Sonata.