14 August 2009

TOKYO SONATA (Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008, Japan/Netherlands/Hong Kong) - Family Horror

Kiyoshi Kurosawa (right) actively discourages rehearsals as he feels it takes the spontaneity out of performance.

Though ‘Tokyo Sonata’ is only the third Kiyoshi Kurosawa film that I have had the chance to see, his output as a director is considerably prolific, so it might be presumptuous of me to conclude that this is his best work to date. Perhaps then it is more appropriate to say that ‘Tokyo Sonata’ is one of the finest Japanese films I have come across in a while. Between 1996 and 1998, Kurosawa made twelve films, dividing his time between television and cinema – he says that film makers in Japan compared to the rest of the world especially Hollywood are not as highly paid, thus trying to embrace the sensible ethos of making one film every two years is a near impossibility. I guess this then explains why he is so prolific.

This reminded me of an argument that Martin Scorsese demonstrated when he produced his memorable study of American cinema; under contract Hollywood studio directors like John Ford and Michael Curtiz would make at least three or four films a year so they naturally got to know their craft quite quickly but were also able to develop a real command of a certain film genre. The same could be said of Kurosawa who spent much of his early career in the arena of V-Cinema, directing straight to video horror and crime films. I would agree with the argument that working in the same genre several times over can exhaust all creative possibilities but it also makes one aware of the those subtle differences and nuances which characterises films that are able to transcend their genre limitations. Such has been the case with Kurosawa’s horror output, much of which was swept up in the wave of J-horror films in the 90s.

In 2008, ‘Tokyo Sonata’ was awarded the Jury Prize at Cannes, ratifying Kurosawa’s distinction as a notable Japanese film maker. Such was the encouraging widespread, consensual reception Kurosawa received for his new film, the Cannes award seemed to only come about as a result of the film maker’s shift into a new genre that he never tackled before; the melodrama and traditional Japanese family narrative. I think it might have damaged the arty reputation of the Jury Prize had they awarded it to a Japanese horror film but a film like ‘Tokyo Sonata’ fits into that tradition of internationally renowned Japanese film makers like Ozu and Mizoguchi. Such snoobish prejudices continue to exist when it comes to culturally inferior?! genres like horror, crime and science fiction, which are routinely overlooked when awards are announced at film festivals. ‘Tokyo Sonata’ is a worthy companion piece to Laurent Cantent’s ‘Time Out’, which also explored the humiliation of unemployment.

The emotional bond between mother and son is strong.

Though Kurosawa’s latest film has been embraced by critics as a melodrama, it is hard not to view it as another horror film. In the 60s, when Hitchcock made ‘Psycho’, the shift from the horror that unfolds in the traditional mythical spaces of woods and fields to the claustrophobic interiors of the everyday domestic space also provided a complex critique of the destruction of the family. This thematic shift remained with the horror genre up until the eighties when parody and pastiche took over. Similarly, Kurosawa is able to uncover a similar horror in the domestic space and the image of the family which is not that far removed from anxieties of suburban malcontent that one encounters in films like ‘Blue Velvet’ and even ‘American Beauty’.

It is the horror of being unemployed and the desperation involved in concealing such a humiliation that acts as the plausible sociological phenomenon at the axis of the films narrative. What comes to the fore are the horrors of contemporary Japanese society – the family in crisis metaphor allows Kurosawa to ruminate over a familiar litany of socially engineered illnesses including apathy, alienation, loneliness and separation. One of the funniest moments occurs just as the film unexpectedly threatens to transform into a peculiar fantasy. Having been challenged by his wife, Megumi Sasaki (Kyôko Koizumi), for engineering an extended conceit to hide the shame of having lost his job, the father and head of the family, Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) is forced to obtain casual employment from a recruitment agency. Working as a cleaner in a shopping centre, one day Ryuhei and Megumi accidentally bump into one another. Paralysed by the horror of having lost his sense of identity and elevated professional status, dressed in a nondescript crimson boiler suit Ryuhei comes face to face with Megumi, the lonely and repressed house wife for whom aspirations are forbidden.

Kenji harbours a desire to learn the piano.

They freeze, looking over one another – the sense of dread in the facial expressions of both is familiar to us as spectators, emerging from the conventions of the horror film. Though Ryuhei feels humiliated, what he runs away from is not his wife, but a terrifying reflection of the mundane transparency and unhappiness that life today brings for an individual like Megumi. For the first time, Ryuhei also sees that his wife is the true victim and saviour of the family – this ideological perspective offers one of the most familiar interpretations of the mother in the structure of the family but it is also by the far the truest. Here is where the film’s status as a melodrama is perhaps the clearest – sympathetically extenuated through the figure of the mother who literally spends her time washing, cooking and cleaning. How ironic it is then that Megumi’s trip to the shopping centre is not by choice but purely by chance.

How ever empty the domestic space maybe in the interiors of the Sasaki family house, Kurosawa offsets a thematic interest in loneliness and repression by depicting the characters with a sense of warmth and empathy. Unlike Cantent’s ‘Time Out’ which seems far more interested in male anxieties, Kurosawa’s film rejects ambiguity for clearer motivation. The youngest member of the family, Kenji (Inowaki Kai), harbours a prodigious musical instinct that is satisfyingly taken to its fruition in the final piano recital. When Megumi confronts Kenji about his secret piano lessons, she actively encourages him to pursue those ambitions as much of her life has been filled with repressing her own inner aspirations. Megumi is equally supportive of her oldest son, Takashi (Yû Koyanagi), who signs up to join the American military so that he can supposedly help protect Japan from her enemies.

Kurosawa hints at another social crisis here, that rising global unemployment is liable to attract young graduates to the military as it superficially seems to provide a sense of purpose and direction to those who feel society has little to offer them which isn’t ideologically and morally bankrupt. Though Takashi’s decision to stay in Iraq may feel a little far fetched, it seems to fit in with the healing and redemptive role that Megumi plays in the family. Unlike the politicised new wave directors of the 1960s (Nagisha Oshima and Shohei Immamura) who opposed the 1960 security treaty between the US and Japan through their films and were not afraid of advocating dissent, prominent Japanese film makers today including Kitano, Nakata and Kurosawa are respectively apolitical.

After being made unemployed Ryuhei is transformed into a virtual zombie.

A note about the style then that is identifiable across the work of Kurosawa. It is a daunting task for any writer or critic to trace a series of thematic motifs or recognisable concerns as it is a seriously vast oeuvre that radically shifts across genres and formats. Koji Yakusho is definitely one key collaborator with whom Kurosawa has made many of his best films and is even given an odd cameo in ‘Tokyo Sonata’ as a demented burglar. In terms of narrative expectations, the final third of the film takes a disorientating turn and perhaps this is where Kurosawa really polarises the spectator. This major disruption in the narrative could possibly be explained in terms of Megumi’s wish to ‘start over’ her life – it’s as if Megumi wills the burglar into existence. What is most interesting here is that once Megumi forcibly abandon’s the domestic space in which she has become effectively imprisoned, it is the catalyst for the premature implosion of the family.

The following is an excerpt taken from an interview with Kurosawa:
DB: You do something very subtle in the film. In Tokyo, one of the key elements of life in the city is that there are so many people everywhere, and yet in Cure you use a lot of empty space – empty rooms, scenes where there are one or two, maybe three people. It almost creates the sense of a ghost city. Did you do that consciously?

KUROSAWA: Yes, my films are characterized by rooms that are too large and streets that are too empty. In fact, the rooms are very small and the streets very crowded in Tokyo. I’m not 100 percent sure why I prefer this ghost town effect. I think perhaps it has something to do with my understanding that many of us, although we may live in physically crowded areas, existentially we often find ourselves alone and adrift in empty space. And I think that’s why I tend to prefer this style.
- 'Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film' by Chris Desjardins, 2005, I.B Tauris, Pg 213

This idea of existentialism and empty space may sound pretentious when contextualised in art cinema today but it is inherently evident in the understated emptiness of the frame that repeats itself in the sparse and minimalist style of a film like ‘Tokyo Sonata’. Yet this ‘ghost town effect’ seems most appropriate when considering how Kurosawa uses the city of Tokyo. Here are the opening shots to the film that illustrates the significance of the domestic space in establishing the symbolic significance of the family as well as signposting the melodrama genre – at the same time as the camera pans across the empty space, such a creepy mood is not far from the repertoire of the horror genre which I am guessing Kurosawa is unconsciously referencing.

Empty Spaces

1. Most of the narrative unfolds within the confined domestic space of the home. (Oddly enough, I didn't find it a claustrophobic film). Such a slow pan from left to right is also commonly found in the horror films of Kurosawa.

2. Though this opening shot may appear benign, the camera surveys the domestic space to underline an emptiness - the house seems too still for a family. Also the added touch of the newspaper gently floating off the table and across the room is quite an eerie image. One could even argue that these are transitional shots and establishing shots typically found in a melodrama that focuses on the family as a theme/narrative.

3. Megumi, the house wife and mother, is the first character that we are introduced to (not formally though) - this tells us how significantly she will come to dominate this particular domestic space.

4. The staring into space or gaze into nowhere or perhaps somewhere beyond the frame links to Kurosawa's interest in existentialism - this also hints at the anxiety facing Megumi's character as she too like all the other members of the family will face their own personal crisis.

I never got a chance to watch 'Tokyo Sonata' on the big screen but its release on DVD and Blu Ray has been widely promoted for a Japanese art film. With Kitano having sadly lost his way, Kiyoshi Kurosawa may end up becoming another festival favourite. I am hoping the rest of his films are as superlative as this one.


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