Some movies spend their stint on the festival circuit growing stale. But Tokyo Sonata, which screened last May at Cannes and last October at the New York Film Festival, has only gotten timelier along its journey; its limited theatrical run now lands, serendipitously, in the midst of the worst economic climate in generations. The film examines various systems’ mechanisms of dissolution — how families disintegrate, how violence spreads, how systems fail together. At its forefront, though, is the collapse of an economy. As the film opens, Ryûhei (Teruyuki Kagawa), husband, father and administrator, loses his job to outsourcing; he subsequently spends his days choking down free meals with hobos and keeping his unemployment a secret from the wife and kids. This might sound tired: Laurent Cantet studied a similar situation in 2001’s Time Out; The Simpsons did it in 2007. But director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) uses the scenario to explore issues beyond the pressures of joblessness.
Ryûhei’s crisis is rooted in humiliation, his failure as breadwinner — more broadly, in his Tevyean reluctance to accept changing cultural roles, a crisis experienced in kind by each member of his family: his wife (Kyôko Koizumi) isn’t as content as she pretends to play mother with a man who hits their children; his sons (Yû Koyanagi and Inowaki Kai), are eager to chase ambitions (soldier and pianist, respectively) that diverge from the career-course their father has envisioned for them. Full of disaffection, alienation and mendacity, Tokyo Sonata is about people out of place, centered on one family but with an eye on the surrounding world, which parallels their condition. Unemployment is not this one man’s private burden — it’s a systemic, national catastrophe: the line at an employment agency stretches as long as a queue for American Idol auditions. The food lines are just as long. And as the situation deteriorates locally, it does so globally as well: A television anchor announces the U.S. troop surge in Iraq after Ryûhei beats up his youngest child.
In the U.S., Kurosawa is known mostly for directing batty horror fare like Cure and Pulse. But to classify him as such is reductive: he’s not only a filmmaker who can comfortably cross genres, but one of the few, like Danny Boyle (when he’s not slumming with slumdogs), who can pull it off within a single film. Tokyo Sonata is primarily a domestic drama, shot with Ozu-like intimacy from behind banisters and shelving, but it dips its toe into farce, road trip, home-invasion thriller and juvenile delinquency, too — even horror, at least atmospherically. (Rusted iron, flaming trashcans and peeling paint characterize the film’s anti-tourist Tokyo, presented as a crowded city — of overlapping houses crammed between powerlines and elevated trains — that looks more like a civilization’s ruins than an active population center.)
Above all, the pleasures of a Kurosawa film, this one included, derive from how he uses the camera: the achingly graceful tracking shots, the immaculately composed frames-within-frames, and the sense of life outside those frames. In Tokyo Sonata, Kurosawa has fashioned his masterpiece: a biting, sensitive and comprehensible film that is also human, contemporary and political. (And it builds to one of the gentlest, most cathartic finales in recent memory.) A string of coincidences late in the film allow the characters to try to run away from their problems, but each merely circles back to where he or she began. You can’t start over, Kurosawa suggests, but you can begin anew — a comforting lesson, as our own country’s breadlines grow longer.