Film Review: 'Tokyo Sonata'

Bottom Line: Kurosawa's first domestic drama is music to general audience's ears.

Cannes Film Festival, Un Certain Regard

For the first time since he achieved fame with "Cure" in the late '90s, there are no howling ghosts, psychopaths, doppelgangers or killer jellyfish in a work by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan's most stylish master of horror. As his portrait of an imploding middle class family reveals, who needs the supernatural when modern urban life is more frightening?

This may be Kurosawa's most accessible film yet, and as such, could broaden his audience base at home and abroad, opening wider avenues in specialist or independent theatrical releases. Festival invitations can be taken for granted.

Thanks to the script which invests the smallest scenes with dramatic significance, "Tokyo Sonata" enthrals audiences for the first hour with the pacing of a thriller. Though depicted reactions of families galvanized by financial hardship are as Japanese as tea ceremony or Pachinko, the film's comment on global economic issues is universal.

Kurosawa conjures up a purgatorial atmosphere in the most mundane surroundings and situations, like job interviews, hand-out queues, school bullying of teachers, toilet cleaning -- the relentless persecution of losers by an impersonal socio-economic mechanism. In a scene where the patriarch takes out his frustrations violently on his son, a bag of potato crisps becomes more threatening than any monster.

The stunts middle-rung salaryman Sasaki (Teruyuki Kawaga) pulls to hide his lay-off from his family are paralleled by corresponding deceptions practised by his wife and sons. The strangeness of it is that none of their clandestine activities -- be they piano lessons or joining the US army -- are wrong or bad. It's a tart satire of a society that employs white lies to prevent hurting (or communicating) with each other.

Acting by a multi-aged cast is on the ball. Teruyuki Kawaga effectively elicits pity and distaste, while former pop idol Kyoko Koizumi holds off sentimentality with her role as a mother who refuses to conform to the role of family tent-pole.

The ending will likely cause dissent among viewers. Some will think it a perfect resolution -- the artificiality a feat of godlike "director ex machina." Others may find it out of synch with the original spirit and narrative direction.

Cast: Teruyuki Kagawa, Kyoko Koizumi, Yu Koyanagi, Kai Inowaki. Writer-director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Screenwriter: Sachiko Tanaka. Producers: Yukie Kito, Wouter Barendrecht. Director of photography: Akiko Ashisawa. Editor: Koichi Takahashi
Entertainment Farm/Fortissimo Films
Sales: Fortissimo Films
No MPAA rating, 117 minutes.