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Tokyo Sonata (2008) – How To Live a Meaningless Existence and Not Be Overly Bothered

April 4, 2011

According to both the Romantics and the Moderns, we are all guilty children of a slain father figure. Standing over the corpse of God with blood on our hands and tears in our eyes, we look down upon slain divinity and weep for the way that his touches always made us feel special. Informed by this sense of loss but unsure of how to respond to it, 20th Century literature built upon 19th Century psychological realism by focusing its gaze inwards to the point where the external world seemed to simply fade away. Convinced that god is dead, science is boring and politics is useless, 20th Century writers wrote about themselves and their problems, coaxing thousands of novels and hundreds of films from the unbearable tragedy of being middle class and a little bit unhappy. Unhappiness framed in terms of the disappearance of God and so made to seem important and cosmic rather than irrelevant and self-indulgent. The truth is that we no more morn the death of god than we do the fall of the Roman empire, like most people who lose a parent, we have moved on and now live our lives not in the shadow of a fictional God but in the sunlight of the real world. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata is a film about the ultimate irrelevance of questions of meaning and consolation to the lives of real people.

 

Film Poster

 

Both the title and the tatami-level opening shot are reminiscent of the work of Ozu, a clever piece of genre positioning that helps to sculpt our expectations of the film.

The film begins by showing us a typical Japanese office. Typical in that it is in the process of laying off workers in order to outsource its administrative functions to a Chinese office that costs much less money to run. Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) is one of the employees to be laid off. Stripped of his position in Japanese society and his status as an administrative director, he finds himself cast into the outer darkness of a bizarre demi-monde populated by other laid-off salarymen who, every morning put on their suits and pick up their briefcases in order to go and stand in line at soup kitchens and unemployment offices where they systematically turn down all the jobs they think are beneath them. The difference between the two worlds is geometric as the world of corporate life is made up of clear lines and ordered patterns whereas unemployment is an untidy human jumble; In one marvellous series of shots, we are shown a bunch of men in suits sitting on stones seemingly eating their lunches. However, the dialogue then mentions that these men are unemployed and the camera swings round to show the rest of the park and the ordered seating instantly turns into a bunch of people chaotically milling around with nothing else to do.

 

An ordered existence (note the similarities of posture and the linear framing provided by the backdrop)

 

Same space but without the impression of order (an effect that reveals the importance of background in the previous shot)

Confronted with a sudden lack of structure in his life, Ryuhei initially bonds with an old school friend who has managed to keep up the appearance of being employed for months using a variety of tricks and techniques such as getting his mobile phone to ring at random so that he can dash off and answer it and so appear to be busy. However, when this old school friend commits suicide, Ryuhei finds himself yet again plunged into a structureless demimonde forcing him to project his insecurities onto his family.

 

The paths of Kenji and Ryuhei converge.

 

Throughout the film, Kurosawa composes shots featuring broad straight lines that hint at the linear structure of a meaningful existence.

Ryuhei’s eldest son Takashi (Yu Yoyanagi) is as much of a drifter as his old man. Supposedly a student, he spends his time failing to hand out leaflets until the lack of structure becomes too much for him and he joins the US military in order to ‘bring peace to the world’ and ‘do something for Japan’. The naïve desperation of Takashi’s decision to enlist reflects Ryuhei’s own desperation at the sudden lack of purpose occasioned by his redundancy. Ryuhei responds to his loss of status by trying to keep it hidden but the suggestion is that he could just as easily throw himself into some foolish endeavour as his oldest son. Needless to say, Ryuhei denies this similarity and so rages impotently at his son’s decision to enlist. Of course, this rage only serves to force his son out of the door.

 

Megumi in the kitchen, her life surrounded by straight lines.

 

Ryuhei’s wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) is initially presented as being much more together than either her husband or Takashi as she seems quite content to devote her life to simply being a wife and mother. When Takashi bemoans the lack of purpose in his life she responds by saying that she drifted into the life she has and it seems to suit her pretty well. However, when an escaped criminal breaks into the house and Megumi decides to run off with him, the shallow nature of Megumi’s commitment to her place in the world is revealed: Yes, she is content to be a mother and a wife but the second something better comes along she is off and running. Needless to say, this act of existential rebellion does not get Megumi particularly far as she winds up on a beach realising that life on the run with a bandit does not really offer her any more meaning or pleasure than being a wife and mother.

 

The lives of the characters are forever filled with queues of people waiting patiently in line for their fate. Is it any surprise that the character experience a sense of loss when they are stripped of their position in the grand social order?

Casting a critical eye over these three characters and their problems, it is immediately obvious that there is something both incredibly tired and profoundly artificial about the themes and dynamics that animate their lives. Tokyo Sonata was released in 2008 and while there are undoubted differences between Japanese and Anglo-Saxon culture, is it really that surprising and interesting that a woman would no longer be content to simply be a wife and a mother?  Similarly, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs in the aftermath of the credit crunch and employment culture has long been moving away from the stability of people building careers within single companies, so is it really credible that a man would suffer a psychological breakdown just because he can no longer be a director of administration? Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road (1961) features a similarly middle-class couple undergoing a similarly middle-class existential crisis and, when that book was written, those themes were still possessed of a degree of vibrant urgency. However, nearly half a century later and transposed to Japan, Kurosawa’s picture of middle-class identity crisis feels clichéd and absurd: This is not the stuff of high drama, this is the stuff of everyday life. But therein lies the fun…

 

Film Poster for Kurosawa's Pulse -- even back then you can see the importance of geometric structure (and deviance from it) in his composition

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a director best known in the west for such memorably awkward early genre films as Pulse (2001), Doppelganger (2003) and Retribution (2006).  Surfing the wave of J-horror and the ensuing explosion of western interest in everything Japanese and genre, Kurosawa won himself a cult following by producing oddly metaphorical films addressing themes of alienation, loneliness and obsession from within a genre tradition that tends to ignore such worries in favour of problems that can be resolved with a sword thrust, a giant robot attack or a hyper-stylised fight scene. Having worked for so long in the genre tradition, Kurosawa has learned how to shift the emphasis of his films away from the foreground action and towards the background. Indeed, in Pulse, the characters run around trying to save themselves and the world from an invasion of ghosts but the real meat of the piece lies in a sequence where life is compared to a computer programme where two dots brush up against each other without ever quite touching. Despite being a much more traditional work of art house dramatic cinema, Tokyo Sonata follows Kurosawa’s genre films by placing most of its big ideas out of the spotlight and into the background.

 

Kenji spies a pretty lady -- note the use of vertical lines in the gate.

The intellectual heart of Tokyo Sonata is really the story of Kenji (Kai Inowaka), Ryuhei and Megumi’s youngest son. When he first appears, Kenji is presented as the archetypal existential antihero who meanders through life rebelling against any structures that would seek to impose themselves on his perfectly individualised existence. This is demonstrated in an early scene when Kenji is caught passing a manga to the front of the class by the teacher who singles him out for public humiliation forcing Kenji to turn the tables on him and reveal to the entire class that he saw him reading porn on the train. The result of this is the complete destruction of the teacher’s authority, about which Kenji feels profoundly ambivalent, but if he is not a revolutionary then what is he?

 

Kenji's life has fences and barriers and so does his father's but Ryuhei's fences do not seem to serve any purpose. And yet he clings to them, partly out of desperation and partly out of habit.

One day, as Kenji is walking home, he overhears a piano lesson and feels a sudden surge of adolescent lust for the pretty piano teacher. Acting on this lust, he diverts his lunch money into paying for piano lessons and sets about learning to play the piano. However, it turns out that he is really quite good at it. In fact, he’s described as something of a prodigy. When Kenji’s teacher suggests that he apply for a scholarship to a conservatoire, Kenji nixes the idea out of fear that his father will discover his lessons (indeed, when Ryuhei does discover Kenji’s lunch-money diversions he promptly throws him down the stairs in order to send a message of paternal authority) and at one point seems happy to ditch the idea of playing the piano in order to run away and look after some kid he meets in the street. Tokyo Sonata ends with Ryuhei accepting his son’s status as a prodigy and even expressing some pride in his son’s talent but while this acceptance can be seen as an optimistic edging towards the family accepting its place in the world, Kurosawa’s treatment of Kenji’s relationship with his own talent paints a far more subversive picture of human nature.

The foreground of Tokyo Sonata is dominated by the question of identity and how events conspire to strip people of their perceived places in the world. No longer capable of being students, directors or mothers, the family undergo a series of convulsive crises as they grapple with their own self-images and their purposes in life. However, the background of Tokyo Sonata is dominated by Kenji’s absolute ambivalence to his own talent. He is not some genius denied access to his talent by an overbearing father, he is a horny teenager who wanted to spend time with a pretty lady and who discovered that a good way of getting praise from the pretty lady was to practice the piano. When Kenji’s fellow students attempt to elevate him to the status of a rebel leader, he rejects the pigeonholing and his attitude towards learning the piano (running away and refusing to apply for a scholarship) suggests that he is just as reluctant to accept being pigeonholed as a musical prodigy.

In one of countless humiliations heaped upon him, Ryuhei is forced to demonstrate his skills in a job interview. However, upon thinking about it, Ryuhei realises that being a director of administration really does not involve possessing any real skills and so he suggests that he display his skill by singing karaoke. This relatively minor scene is played largely for laughs but it underscores the fragility of many contemporary notions of identity: We claim to be many things but can we, when the chips are down, really prove that we are these things and, if we cannot, what right do we have to claim them as a part of our identities? Kenji is someone who possesses a real skill.  Were he to be put on the spot like his father, he could demonstrate his identity as a child prodigy simply by playing the piano (indeed, the film ends with Kenji doing just this). However, despite having the skills to be something and having the opportunity to become that thing, Kenji is reluctant to accept pigeonholing. His family tear themselves apart in a search for meaning but when Kenji has meaning and identity offered to him on a silver plate, he is largely nonplussed.

 

Kenji finds a place in the world

 

As he leaves the piano, his parents fall into step behind him. Kenji's status as a prodigy provides them with some much needed structure in their lives but Kenji himself betrays no emotion. Not pride. Not joy. Not love.

Tokyo Sonata is a film in which the foreground abides very much to the patterns and expectations of the art house dramatic genre. It features middle-class people striving after identity in a world of perpetual personal crisis. However, the background and sub-text of the film suggest that such striving is faintly ridiculous as it is more than easy to live one’s life without profound spiritual insight into one’s place in the world. Kenji’s absolute ambivalence to the prospect of living the life of a musical prodigy suggests that meaning is but one of many bases for making decisions about the lives we live.  In fact, doing something because you want to live a meaningful life is presented as no more or less valid than doing something because you want to spend time with a pretty lady. Life does not need to be a spiritual quest… it can be as simple as being annoyed at being singled out for criticism or feeling a surge of desire upon walking past the house of a piano teacher. Toyko Sonata is a film that slyly suggests that there is something faintly ridiculous about most art house dramas and, as with Kurosawa’s previous works, it does so from well within the boundaries of that particular genre.

 

 

 

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