March 13, 2009

FILM OF THE WEEK: Tokyo Sonata

tokyo_sonata2.jpgWhile Aaron Hillis drowns under a sea of guacamole and Alex Jones bullhorn rants, er, that is, prepares for his first SXSW dispatches from Austin, Vadim Rizov (The Village Voice, The House Next Door), writes about the latest Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, Tokyo Sonata, which opens in New York today before spreading across the country.

Selective and erratic distribution of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's work has given American audiences a distorted impression of him as a genre tinkerer, but the atmospheric horror duo of Cure and Pulse is far from all he has to offer. Genres don't really fascinate Kurosawa so much as imposing his own aesthetic on whatever material's at hand: rigorously unnerving framing (symmetrical frames that are just slightly off), sudden left-field plot developments and a sense of weird gravity pervading even the most trivial moment. If that approach makes a ghost story like Pulse way more effective than your standard shocker, it's bizarre that Kurosawa hasn't yet taken his approach and applied it to a traditional drama to give it the juice so often sorely lacking. Now he has.

Tokyo Sonata begins with Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa), recently fired from his middle-manager job. Rather than tell his family, he dresses up every day and searches for work; eventually, he kind of gives up and just hangs out in a park with a bunch of other fired middle-managers, all milling around in their suits while eating free porridge. At home, wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) floats into the anomie of denial, eldest son Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) joins the American army (don't ask; social criticism isn't Kurosawa's strong point) and youngest Kenji (Kai Inowaki) sneaks behind his father's back to take piano lessons.

Two-thirds of the way in, Tokyo Sonata is a nicely observed low-key drama just unnerving enough to keep you on edge: Kurosawa's framing is always a bit cluttered and claustrophobic, and his willingness to sit and watch for a little too long makes it seem like violent disaster is always just on the verge of breaking out. And then suddenly it does and all hell breaks out. Just when it seems like Kurosawa's reigned in the schizophrenic eccentricities that only make sense to him (the same ones that can make a movie like Bright Future almost incomprehensible), there's a development I won't spoil that turns the movie into something it shouldn't be. Original screenwriter Max Mannix is pissed: in an e-mail interview with Edward Champion, he could barely reign in his annoyance. "The original screenplay that I wrote didn’t ask the audience to trust me here and there, then suspend belief when it was convenient for me," he fumed. "There were, in my opinion, some pretty bizarre story threads in the film."

There's a point to Kurosawa's approach though, and not an inconsiderable one: Mannix, in his interview, stresses his desire to hew to the Ozu side of things. Kurosawa, quite reasonably, doesn't want to fall into the potentially boring trap of easy humanism: like the ending of There Will Be Blood, what should happen (a fight, some brooding, a reconciliation) isn't enough of a challenge for him, so he does it his way. There's a finale that's still heartbreaking in its portrait of a family coming together, but Kurosawa's examining the same thing as the similarly predicated Time Out: how losing your work can destroy your personality and tear a family apart when the material things once taken for granted disappear and leave you with a suddenly untenable network of relationships. I wish Kurosawa would find a way of expressing himself other than willful eccentricity, but there's no denying his typically formidable craft and how effective this film is despite the fact that it tears itself apart for half-an-hour. Tokyo Sonata is finally deeply moving, either despite or because of the unusual path it takes to get there.

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Posted by cphillips at March 13, 2009 11:52 AM