by Jef Burnham
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The narrative in Tokyo Sonata, though a commentary on the economic state of Japan and Japan’s role in international affairs, is uncomfortably relevant globally, given the current worldwide recession. The film follows the Sasaki family as the each of the parents and two sons struggle to find their role in a society they feel stifled by.
The majority of the film is devoted to the father, Ryuhei, who is laid-off from his position as Administrative Director of a large firm, when his job is outsourced to China. Ryuhei, shamed by his unemployment, cannot bring himself to tell his family and finds himself part of a sad subculture of businessmen who spend all day hanging around libraries and standing in line with the homeless for free food. The endless lines Ryuhei encounters at the unemployment offices are no exaggeration in today’s economic climate. With no job prospects and no real skills, Ryuhei is forced to consider temporary work in the service sector.
The youngest son, Kenji, uses his lunch money to pay for piano lessons, which his father forbids. Kenji’s deception mirrors his father’s, as they both become increasingly distant from the family as they struggle to maintain their charades. The father/son dynamic is especially interesting when you consider that their stories are mirrored though Kenji is decidedly a genius though his father has no skills. Kenji’s brother, Takashi, and their mother, Megumi, offer very little to the story. Though there is an attempt to address the problems of all members of the family, these two come off as extremely thin and forced, especially in Takashi’s glorification of the American war in Iraq.
It’s easy to forgive the film its half-hearted efforts to utilize all members of the family, when Ryuhei and Kenji’s struggles are so engaging. However, I find it a bit hard to appreciate the bizarre change in the film’s atmosphere around the last half hour, which is plagued by endless kookiness, clichés and a whole pile of dues ex machinas. Thew dialogue also takes a nosedive, when Megumi declares tritely, “You’re the only person who can be you. That’s what we have to hold onto.” The final scene of the film is powerful indeed, but I’m still uncertain whether it compensates for the kookiness of the preceding sequences.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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