The creeping dread of a faltering global economy is likely to inspire a wave of films with themes of depression, loss, and vulnerability within developed nations. Punching holes in ideas of safety and permanence while all of our friends and neighbors lose jobs and businesses would seem to be a fairly easy target, and one guaranteed to strike the viewer at a visceral level. Placed within the context of a family that experiences upheaval as a result of these and other pressures, a solid drama takes shape that can be sent in any number of unexpected directions. The key when crafting such a film is to master the tone, so as not to break the spell cast by the overbearing tension and high stakes involved. Even with the stark relevance of a story set during an economic slump, it can careen all too easily off course. Tokyo Sonata starts strongly along these lines, but it would seem the script became bored with tragedy as entertainment and proceeded to jump off a nearby deep end.
Ryuhei is a mid-level executive who is downsized at the beginning of the film, betraying very little emotion in order to keep his facade of prepossessing control intact. His wife, Megumi, suspects something is awry since her husband tends to come home early from work and is increasingly frustrated with their children. Kenji is a schoolboy who develops an extraordinary talent with the piano, while Takashi is an older slacker who is barely around and has yet to figure out what to do with his life. The opening shot sets the mood with great portent as Megumi closes a door to keep out the rain of a powerful storm, wipes up the water deposited by the driving rain with more on the way. She reopens the door and stares, seemingly paralyzed. She occupies a passive role in the film, but is no less disheartened by her powerlessness to do anything about what is happening to her family. Ryuhei, for his part, is obstinate, discusses nothing, and hides his unemployment by departing each morning with his suitcase and tie. Each day he hangs out in the park and in the library – each location spilling over with other suits that appear to have nowhere to go.
Ryuhei meets another downsized executive, Kurosu, who bears his unemployment like a joke, setting his phone to ring five times an hour in a running gag. He keeps the melancholy just under the skin: “The lifeboats are gone,” he says before joining a river of commuting suits like an ocean current heading for the depths. Initially, the inertia of their situation is amusingly disconcerting. Initial job agency offers are declined as being beneath men of accomplishment and respect, but desperation sets in fairly quickly. In one of the most effective scenes, Ryuhei is forced to sing karaoke at a humiliating interview despite the obvious implication that he will never be hired anyway. The only way this story will go is down, as Megumi discovers her husband in a free food line in a park, Kenji gives up his struggle to learn piano after his father beats him in a fit of pique, Takashi enlists to fight in Iraq, and Kurosu’s jovial nature gives way to something darker. The family unit, the very icon of durability in stormy economic times, fragments irreparably. At this point, I felt that the film was heading into pitch black territory, and there was even a moment that threatened to echo the heartbreaking suicide scene from Sansho the Bailiff.
Then Tokyo Sonata throws a few curves in the name of unpredictability, and this is where the film lost me for the most part. A thief breaks into the house, ties up Megumi, and puts a knife to her throat. This ends up being played for humor (what) and she hits the road with him after tiring of her lying husband (what??). Ryuhei takes a janitorial position and whilst cleaning toilets, he sees his wife, and his pride is shattered, and so he jumps in front of a truck (come the fuck on). I enjoy a film that shoots off in unexpected directions, but these sojourns were arbitrary and the shifts in tone were drastic enough that I stopped caring about whether these people would reemerge on the other side in one piece.
Though some of the wounds were sutured in the denouement, the hemorrhage was already on the floor. This is the hazard of using humor in an injudicious fashion, particularly when such moments are preceded by dire omens. A recurrent issue was one of inability to accept difficult circumstances, which led to further hardship, all in a vicious cycle that could only be broken by humble adaptation. The executive failed to take a position beneath his prior station, and so the fall for his family remained unbroken. Megumi, interestingly, considers taking a fatal swim in the ocean toward an unseen island; the symbolism is forced, but under such circumstances, a mirage would do nicely.
In the conclusion, the family finally accepted their damaged circumstances, and in so doing remained afloat long enough to enjoy a beautiful rendering of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune”. I can appreciate the lowly but practical position that by surrendering pride and accepting that we may not deserve any more than the scraps we are able to collect at the end of the day. Not the mindset of a conquering hero, but unless you have a massive inheritance, a punishing work ethic, or a tremendous idea, then chasing scraps of some sort is going to be your fate. As such, your life is subjected to the tides, and your fortune remains out of your hands. Kiyoshi Kurosawa has crafted an engaging and thoughtful 3/4 of a movie, and for that the feature is worth a look. The odd changes in tone and the occasionally capricious decisions of the characters ultimately sabotage this work, and prevent it from becoming truly memorable.