This Japanese import is an engaging and effective look at the struggle of feeling trapped by a countries traditions and cultures, that minus an odd 20 minutes near the end, is pretty solid all around.
The Sasaki’s are an ordinary middle class family living a rather normal existence in modern Japan. Composed of mom, dad, and two brothers, the family is full of different personalities. Mom, Megumi is a stay at home of sorts but doesn’t waste away at home miserable. In fact she seems to be quite content with her role in the family and is happy to support her children and husband. The two sons are a bit separated in age with the younger, Kenji being a decent kid with flares of acting up in school that gets him into a bit of trouble but steers himself onto a path of learning the Piano; and it becomes something he is rather passionate about. His older brother, Takashi, is a bit of a recluse, never showing up at home till the following morning while he sleeps all day. Spending his nights, working, going to class, or just being out, he is a bit disconnected from his family, especially his father, but his parents don’t try and change him, letting the child live his life to his own accord. The father of the house, Ryûhei, seems to have a nice stable job with a large company, but suddenly finds himself without one as his role is outsourced to China for younger and cheaper labor. Terrified of reporting back to his family, Ryûhei decides to act like he is going to work everyday still and as time goes on things slowly become more and more unstable in the home as everyone is hit with the feeling of breaking free of the conformity chains that bind to their current lives.
Letting the drama unfold is the best way to enjoy this family, so I will delve into the characters and plot no more. But this family’s journey is filled with sadness, anger, and comedy for us to enjoy at the film is quite effective in its ability to affect us. Now let me dive into the problem point of this film and that is a purposeful but bizarre detour that three of our main characters take in the film final act. Are family is reaching a breaking point as their worlds change and crumble around them and the director, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, takes them each on a bizarre attempt at running away/escaping from their current lives. The sequence starts off really well, I must admit, with some brilliant comedy work going on with the events unfolding around Megumi, but thinks quickly get so random and out there it is just bad. There is too much of a tonal shift and I appreciate what Kurosawa was going for with the attempt to escape conformity, but these emotions were all pretty much conveyed and could have been done so far more in tune with tone the film established. The film does right itself and shine again in the final scenes, and ends on a near perfect note, and thankfully making up for the tarnish the sequences preceding it laid on the film.
The film takes more interesting and realistic turns through out the film that are both surprising yet relatable since they are grounded in reality. The films characters are easy to identify with as well and that is a testament to some strong acting and writing by everyone involved. The arc’s these characters take over the course of the film are quite interesting to dissect as well and will both bother and elate you with their paths. The film is also quite funny at times and has a few moments of hilarity thrown in as well where I found myself laughing aloud quite hard.
Teruyuki Kagawa is very good as Ryûhei and is heartbreaking at times at his desperation and the feeling of being lost he conveys. But he also shows range in his ability to deliver a deadpan joke as well that will have you pulling a 180 on your feelings in a scene before whipping you right back around. And his characters hypocrisy and anger that comes out towards the end is shocking and appalling yet he lets us still feel compassion for this man that is at an obvious crossroads in his life. Kyôko Koizumi is also quite good as the mother of the household and while she plays quiet and soft spoken, she doesn’t go over the top when she good and brings reserved and level headedness to the proceedings. I will say though, she got the short straw when it came to the awkward sequence I mentioned earlier, while it might start well, it quickly erodes into almost an unwatchable mess. Inowaki Kai and Yû Koyanagi are both good as the brothers in the household and while Kai gets more to work with, in which he shows a quiet confidence that really pops, Koyanagi makes the most of his brief scenes as well. Special mention needs to go out to Kanji Tsuda who steals every scene he is in and provides many of the films laughs as a fellow out of work ex-classmate of Ryûhei’s that shows him the ropes of keeping afloat and keeping your home feeling like they still have a job.
In the end, Tokyo Sonata is 80% really good blend of drama, tragedy, comedy, and interesting characters. The other 20% is an awkward and abrupt change of pace that almost destroys everything that was built up before it. The film rights itself in the end and upon reflection elevates its better parts over the awkward with ease. An interesting study of the human condition and it ability to conform to a world it doesn’t even know, there is plenty of messages to take away from this film, and the more attuned you are to Japanese culture the more rewarding the experience will be. With that said if you are ignorant to said culture there is still plenty for us Westerners to connect with as well.
Tokyo Sonata is a B