It is truly rare in the cinema that the power of our most universal art can be approached, much less surpassed. With Tokyo Sonata a new level of deep social commentary, frequently in danger of plunging over the abyss of human foible and despair, finds its incredible resolution in a well-loved solo piano work (Debussy’s “Clair de lune”) given a miraculous vrai performance that was greeted by the ever-growing crowd of aficionados and parents alike with a stunned, reverent silence, carrying more emotion and meaning than the near-mandatory standing ovations which reward so many “good enough” live performances in concert halls around the globe.
That all of this was done purposely raises the happy possibility that new means of expression and communication through unbridled creativity laughs in the face of the far-too-true cliché: “There’s nothing new under the sun.”
In the case of the Sasaki household, it’s the two sons, Takashi (camera-friendly Yû Koyanagi) and Kenji (Inowaki Kai commands all of his scenes) who catalytically drive the film’s action with apparent innocence to its magnificent conclusion.
In today’s worldwide epidemic of unabashed greed, finally—many warnings were self-servingly ignored—being brought to light, sudden job loss shakes the economic foundation of families every day.
Senior administrator Ryûhei Sasaki (a difficult role played with grit by Teruyuki Kagawa) takes his abrupt downsizing stoically, opting to keep this authority-at-home-killing news from his, initially, docile wife, Megumi (veteran Kyôko Koizumi) and their kids.
While desperately seeking a new situation (“I’ll do anything …”) he stumbles into an old high school chum, Kuruso (Kanji Tsuda does up the brief role with flair) as they both pretend not to be using a free-food outdoor kitchen for the poor.
Once their shared shame is admitted (Kuruso uses a hilarious cellphone setting to keep up the façade of being a much sought-after executive whose advice is required at least 5 times per hour), the duo try to support each as they lie to their respective mates and children. Misery loves company indeed.
Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s (who along with Max Mannix and Sachiko Tanaka penned the script) seeming intent of presenting a dark comedy takes a sudden turn from the sardonic laugh track with a double suicide suddenly morphing the tone from troublesome fun to nervous unease.
Kenji livens up the proceedings considerably by standing up for his rights in grade school (too much truth knocks his bullying teacher down to size) and surreptiously starting piano lessons (Dad was unequivocal in his I’m-in-charge “No!”).
Elder sibling Takashi ditches his pamphlet marketing gig (with a great moment of insight from his sidekick whose solution to poverty is simple: “We need the big earthquake to shake things up.” Instead, the long-haired peacenik opts to enlist in the U.S. Army “to protect my family,” which mightily pisses off dad—now his dominant role is being hammered on all fronts. Tellingly, Private Sasaki decides to switch sides in the Middle East once he’s come up-close-and-personal with the innocent lives being ruined in that part of the world by greedy monsters.
Then, before you can say “Life stinks,” Ryûhei accepts a job cleaning shitters in a mall (where, in concert, the Muzak spews crappy arrangements of Tchaikovsky masterworks), Megumi becomes the victim of a home invasion and Kenji suffers a concussion from his enraged father when his secret lessons are discovered (a letter from the studio being the only weak plot point of the otherwise brilliant narrative). Why the Children’s Aid Society wasn’t called as a matter of routine after Kenji’s brain injury was treated at the local hospital is also somewhat disquieting.
No matter. The final sequences appear to be madly going off in all directions and the little voice wondering “Why don’t we ever get to hear if Kenji has the exceptional talent his teacher claims?” is quashed. Cut to the special music school’s entry-exam.
So many other films use classical music like a cheap whore—especially works in the public domain. Necessarily, actors are forced to fake singing (don’t miss the humiliating Karaoke challenge in a telling job interview much earlier), conducting or playing an instrument. Much of the music is economically rearranged (both in terms of orchestration and actual bars) to suit the film (and its budget), too frequently ignoring the long-dead composer’s intent. (Would film directors like their masterpiece cut down to 10 minutes?)
Here, none of those deficiencies were permitted. The entire work—with pin-drop silence, sensitively captured by Akiko Ashizawa’s camera, rendered with a musical maturity that also speaks well for a future performer—concludes a film that bravely examines the real misery of post-credit-crisis everyday life using an opus that if honestly performed and truly heard, will make anyone want to get up in the morning and try, try again. JWR