Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata is an impressive piece of film making, albeit one that I respected rather than loved. Perhaps that’s because it made me uncomfortable – at once a black comedy about unemployment and Japanese social standing, it then veers into a bleaker second half, where family life comes crashing down around the Sasaki’s. The son (the one who hasn’t joined the American army) is there at the end to add sentimentality to the finish, and link the film more explicitly with its title.
Ryuhei is a Japanese businessman who, when his department is outsourced to China, is deemed too old to join another company in a business culture where jobs have long been considered “for life”. He goes to the unemployment office and is offered a job of managing a convenience store. Turning this down, he spends his days pretending to go to work, when actually he heads to an area where the unemployed congregate. This first half includes some of the most humorous scenes, especially with the other businessmen who sets his phone to “call” him every 15 minutes so that he can stay in the frame of mind of having a job. This section also makes the point of how central work is to the identity of the salaryman, how even in unemployment – and despite the pretext of keeping up appearances for his wife – he wouldn’t actually want it any other way.
For here, however, tragedy enters. The friend kills himself, and his wife. The sons have arguments with their patriarchal father, who despite the loss of his job still demands traditional ‘respect’ from his one wayward son, and the other who just wants to play the piano. Ryuhei returns to the unemployment office, and takes a job as a cleaner at a shopping centre. One day he finds a package of money left in the toilet – as he emerges with it his wife, Megumi, who has been kidnapped by a robber, spots him. Both have bizarre evenings- Ryuhei runs away in emotional turmoil, before being hit by a car, while his wife Megumi seems to be considering killing herself. Meanwhile their youngest son, piano playing Kenji, is arrested. All return to the family house mid-morning, and it seems like some kind of breaking point has passed – the family will stay together. The ending is a point of contention – some seem to think it adds unnecessary sentimentality, others like it. I think it goes some way to transcending the humour of the first half and the tragedy of the second half of this movie – showing that, despite all the problems caused by unemployment, and the rigid structure of family order based around the role of the father as hard working businessman providing for and protecting his family, there is still a lot to unite the Sasaki’s. Kenji’s prodigious piano talent elevates the tough realities of life into emotional family unity, and is a powerful note on which to end the film. ★★★★