There is power in subtlety. As gracious as its overall approach is, Cannes winner Tokyo Sonata tackles themes of familial disputes without having to resort to hysterics and melodrama to drive a point. At first glance its subject matters may solely revolve around a family of four, but it is more than that. It is a reflection on the very things that allow us to exist in this world. If there is one thing that Tokyo Sonata dares to express, it is that family exists for the sole purpose of one’s self-fulfillment. Indeed, such viewpoint can be deemed egocentric, with the idea only seen via a closer look through its premise; nevertheless, the film succeeds in portraying our attempts to survive in a world we may or may not want to become part of.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa, best known for his Japanese horror films Cure, Kairo, and Retribution, displays an exceptional understanding of our own search for identity. In Tokyo Sonata, there is our need to escape. It begins with the father Ryuhei Sasaki losing his job after his company opted to hire Chinese workers as part of a risky financial decision. His wife, Megumi, is a caring housewife resigned to look after the house and her children. Takashi, the eldest son, longs to join the US military. The youngest son Kenji, meanwhile, secretly spends his lunch money in order to learn piano lessons from a beautiful divorced woman. The film wastes no time in developing this seemingly simple setup that its viewers are bound to be surprised when the story spirals down into a web of intrigue and despair.
Tokyo Sonata finds itself burdened with domestic deception. Almost every member of the family has something to hide, which adds further anxiety to certain scenes when big reveals are made and their relationship is put to test. And the fact that there is anxiety only demonstrates Kurosawa’s capacity to establish characters. Close-ups are rare in each scene, and by having the shots focus on the entire family during crucial parts, we are forced to witness each member’s reactions, required to see how such an unassuming group of people turn into civilized savages, doing anything and everything for the sake of their own happiness. And how painful it is when we find out they have no other choice.
Lots will surely get turned off by the appearance of the burglar near the end. The character—played by the reliable Koji Yakusho—calls for the entire film to become an exercise in metaphysical rumination. In fact, the final few scenes seem to have stumbled down the lane of surrealism only to lift itself back up with its head raised high as if nothing happened. No one will surely agree on a hedonist perspective of the film, but with the way it shows the family committing acts of self-regard, it is impossible not to fall prey. In the end, Tokyo Sonata exemplifies the hardships people from the first world have to go through. It is a testament on how the family is the very first entity that becomes affected by any cause possible, on how a sudden change of one’s life (e.g. Ryuhei losing his job) means the downfall of another. The final scene leaves us speechless, not because of the beauty that surrounded it, but because of the gaping hole we are forced to fill. We see the family happy, and we know that by giving them a week or two, such happiness will prove to be temporary.