One of the more famous pieces of fiction on the subject of unrest amongst the wealthy elite in post-World War II America is John Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio.” In the story, a family purchases a new radio, which by some strange and unexplainable phenomenon can listen in on all of the conversations of the neighboring apartments. Depression, money woes and spousal abuse all come pouring into the family’s living room through the device, revealing the gritty, troubled soul of these otherwise seemingly privileged individuals.
It is the truths that lie below the surface of this elite class that reveal the most troubled vices and desires of human nature, and in director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest film Tokyo Sonata, the filmmaker probes deep in discovering these darkened aspects plaguing the social and economic growth of contemporary society.
Set in modern day Japan, the film centers around the Sasaki family living in a fairly prosperous, upper middle class suburb. When the father Ryuhei loses his job, the gradual unraveling of the family begins. Too ashamed to reveal his unemployment, Ryuhei pretends nothing has happened, and instead of informing his family of the situation, spends his days wandering about various libraries and parks to kill time until returning to his home in the evening. His wife Megumi meanwhile has become incredibly dissatisfied with her position at home, and longs to escape the monotony of housework and other domestic activities. Their sons Kenji and Takashi as well search for their purpose and meaning; Takashi joins the American military and Kenji begins secretly taking the piano lessons his father has forbid.
Ultimately the characters must confront their own personal weaknesses, and discover the strengths lying within the bonds of family.
Director Kurosawa, known for his horror films such as Cure, departs from his previous work for an intimate examination of social and economic strife that is both saddening and hopeful.
“I am hoping that Tokyo Sonata will be received by the audience as a film unlike any of my previous works,” Kurosawa says. “The theme I am most concerned with right now is what kind of generation the 21st century truly is. Why is it so muddled and confused? Why is it so vastly different from the vision of the future we had in the previous century? Who is responsible for the way things turned out? It is difficult to find the answer. Tokyo Sonata was created so that I would not back down in the face of this complex problem, and I expect it to become a new point of departure for me.”
With great technical precision, Kurosawa is able to bring the audience into the inner most struggles of the characters. Employing a photographic approach reminiscent of legendary Japanese auteur Yasujiro Ozu, Kurosawa barely moves the camera at all in many of the scenes, adding to the sense of confinement felt throughout the story.
The sound design as well is extremely compelling, and acts as almost another character. Everything from the ticking of a clock, to the industrial sounds of the suburb, are presented in a specific, rhythmic pattern, emphasizing the almost unbearable monotony experienced by the characters.
More than just a story of one family’s struggle for survival, the film is a commentary on greater Japan as a whole.
“Whether they notice it or not, these people are constantly influenced by the greater forces of the exterior world, and they continue to be tossed around by the impacts,” Kurosawa says. “The small family in the film is directly connected to Japan, and Japan is connected directly to the world. Is it better to desperately protect something that exists inside? Or, is it better to release everything into the exterior? So many Japanese people are faced with these two choices on a daily basis, and they live the 21st century in confusion. Of course, I am one of these people as well.”
Tokyo Sonata, presents an engaging examination not only on the troubles of contemporary Japan, but global society as well, and through Kurosawa’s meticulous direction and rich camera design, is able to bring about a moving portrait of a family’s desire to connect to each other and the world around them.