Shedding Moonlight on Japan
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 17, 2009
Japan, as a plan, isn't working out very well for the Sasaki family. Dad has lost his job, Mom is underappreciated, and their sons, Takashi and Kenji, are running away from reality as fast as they can, though in different directions.
In "Tokyo Sonata," director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, better known as a maker of horror films, puts an ordinary Japanese family through the wringer, grinding them in a Dickensian mill until there's nothing but wreckage. And then he gets them to sit down to dinner, in the grand tradition of Japanese family dramas all the way back to the giant of the genre, Yasujiro Ozu.
"Tokyo Sonata" has a melodious title, and by the end it accomplishes one of the most memorable integrations of film and music in recent memory. It won Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2008. It's an appealing if uneven film, aiming not just at the lyricism suggested by the title but at humor, political commentary, mysticism and perhaps a little of Kurosawa's old horror flavor as well.Like so many Japanese films these days, it is skillfully and poetically made, and occasionally goes too far (the American art house crowd -- and critics -- seem to have a lower tolerance than Japanese audiences for sentimentality and Gothic narratives).
The film opens with a stock comic setup: A father loses his job as a mid-level administrator. Rather than lose face with his family, he conceals his unemployment, donning his workaday armor of suit and tie, heading off at the usual hour and returning exhausted at the end of the day. In between, he hangs out with the other victims of Japan's terrible economy, cadges free meals in a desolate city park and slowly fritters away the last remnants of his self-esteem.
If Kurosawa intends his film to be read as a sonata, this is the first movement, in which a high-spirited comic theme is progressively developed until it takes a darker turn, and we see the potentially fatal consequences of Japan's stern, patriarchal society.
Music emerges, literally, as a plot element when Sasaki's youngest son Kenji develops a yen for the piano. And that theme is neatly contrasted with a darker shadow when Takashi (who is a nocturnal being, living on the night side of the family planet) decides to join the American Army and fight in a dun-colored, violent Middle Eastern country.
It is at this moment that the film dips into politics, and it's a very strange detour. It's perhaps best understood against the background of another film, Nagisa Oshima's 1960 "Night and Fog," which parsed the politics of Japan's decision to live under the security umbrella of the United States. It was, for the Japanese left, a momentous choice, and for Oshima, a betrayal of his county's future.
Flash-forward a half-century, and Japan is living in that future. Kurosawa's Japan is insular, unserious and stultified, unwilling to shoulder real geopolitical responsibility and unable to offer its youth a meaningful identity and sense of purpose. Whereas Oshima's most important early film expressed horror at the Japanese-American defense pact, Kurosawa sends one of his characters into battle under the U.S. flag. Both directors, however, seem to despair of Japan's own self-determination.
A sonata can be just about anything these days, but for much of the history of the term, it referred to a musical form that helped composers contain, contrast and develop divergent musical ideas. At its best, "Tokyo Sonata" is a deft interweaving of seemingly dissonant ideas -- war and music, family and politics, authority and freedom. It also uses lighting to create a powerful contrast between domestic and public space, and night and day, which are two of the main axes of meaning in the film.
Filmmakers, and other artists, often turn to music for cheap advantage, because it gives the illusion of depth and lyricism and an expressive power beyond words. Kurosawa is the rare director who simply lets his film dissolve into music, allowing the plot to take the film naturally to a musical conclusion. There's no soaring soundtrack, just a simple performance of Debussy's "Clair de Lune." But it is a remarkable ending, a suggestion of moonlight to counter dark thoughts about the Land of the Rising Sun.
Contains thematic elements and brief strong language.