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When a Tokyo father loses his job he hides it, exacerbating a chasm in the family that may disintegrate it. Starring: Teruyuki Kagawa, Yu Koyanagi, Inowaki Kai, Haruka Igawa, Koji Yakusho.

4 out of 4 stars


Tokyo Sonata

  • Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
  • Written by Max Mannix, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Sachiko Tanaka
  • Starring Teruyuki Kagawa, Kyoko Koizumi, Yu Koyanagi, Inowaki Kai, Haruka Igawa, Kanji Tsuda and Koji Yakusho
  • (In Japanese with English subtitles)
  • Classification: PG

A man loses his middle-management job, is ashamed to tell his family and so continues to leave the house each morning in business attire. His lonely perfectionist wife drifts through household duties, dreaming of buying a flashy car. His restless college-age son finds purpose in life by enlisting in the U.S. Army. And his precocious, sensitive younger son secretly takes piano lessons, paying with his lunch money and practising on a broken keyboard retrieved from someone's garbage.

The four "movements" of Tokyo Sonata may sound like the next domestic melodrama-of-the-week, but the film transcends conventions of genre and cultural boundaries, and turns out to be one of the most compelling, finely orchestrated and oddly enchanting films of the year so far.

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Screened at Cannes (winning the Un Certain Regard jury prize) and the Toronto International Film Festival last year, Tokyo Sonata is definitely in tune with the current zeitgeist, but one suspects that's more coincidence than intention.

The opening theme is clear: The Sasaki family is on the brink of falling apart. Their uncommunicative dynamic is not particularly extraordinary, but as the individual stories get rolling - driven by chance encounters and often surprising choices - the family dining room feels like an increasingly dangerous place.

Chalk that up to the serious filmmaking chops of prolific J-horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who departs from his usual material here, yet still manages to deliver the tension, jolts, dark humour and visual treats characteristic of his previous work.

In an earlier Kurosawa film, Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) might be a tightly wound business drone who snaps and commits murder. But in Tokyo Sonata , his brutal side is expressed through rigidly authoritarian and ultimately explosive behaviour toward his sons. Kurosawa plays with our sympathies. Every day Ryuhei plods to the unemployment office, lines up at the soup kitchen, visits the library. An out-of-work acquaintance - who has turned a similar charade into an art - invites him home for dinner only to pretend he is Ryuhei's boss.

But humiliation eventually unleashes rage. Ryuhei angrily forbids Kenji (Inowaki Kai) to take piano lessons and Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) to join the U.S. Army, mostly just because he says so. When he discovers a letter recommending that Kenji attend a special school for gifted musicians, Ryuhei lashes out violently. At this point, even a job scrubbing toilets in a mall won't bring him redemption - he must descend further.

Kurosawa also pushes the demure Megumi (a delicate, heart-wrenching performance by Kyoko Koizumi) to the edge, but more gently - at least at first. One night, after her husband comes home late, she stretches out her arms and calls for him to help her up from the sofa where she has fallen asleep. But Ryuhei has already left the room. It's an exquisitely painful moment. Eventually, Megumi's daydreams of buying a car are replaced by nightmares about Takashi, who has been deployed to Iraq. She cannot protect either of her sons from violence; her helplessness is complete.

But the emotional "prison" of her well-appointed household is invaded by a bumbling, manic-depressive thief (Japanese star and Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho). Megumi has no money, so he takes her hostage, making her drive a sports car he has stolen all the way to the sea. We are tantalized by the notion that Megumi may not actually want to escape because she has found release.

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In the quietly moving final scene, with both sons moving forward on starkly contrasting paths, Kurosawa hints that the parents finally realize they must alter their own paths, too. Like the classical form of the musical sonata, Tokyo Sonata returns to the home key with the theme transformed, but not necessarily resolved.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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