Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Donato Totaro: Flirting with the Fantasitic -- Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata (2008)

Tokyo Sonata: Flirting with the Fantastic ~ Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008 ~
by Donato Totaro

Kiyoshi Kurosawa has quietly (appropriately enough, given his aesthetic) become the master of the slow burn horror. His 1997 Cure marked his entry into the broad parameters of what could be called horror. With Cure Kurosawa tackled the serial killer film but steered from the moral or narrative clarity of predecessors like Seven or Silence of the Lambs. In Cure a series of bizarre killings take place where each victim is left scarred with an X on their chest (homage to Hawks’ Scarface?), and the killers are found with no memory of the murder or possible motive. The disconnected killings are eventually tied to a disturbed young man who seems to have the power to hypnotize people into killing. Kurosawa is less interested in solving the crimes or understanding them, than he is in tapping into the psychological underpinnings that the crimes bring out of the detective investigating the crimes, Takabe (played by Kurosawa’s favorite actor, Koji Yakusho). Kurosawa’s understated style (long takes, minimal use of music, ambient electronic sounds, autumnal lighting) builds toward an atmosphere of dread that grows as much from the underlying themes of identity loss, urban ennui, and alienation, as the actual murders. Kurosawa followed Cure with a slew of similarly themed and styled horror films, sometimes adding a hint of the supernatural. They are Charisma (1999), Seance (2000), Pulse (2001), Bright Future (2003), Doppelganger (2003), Loft (2005), and Retribution (2006). Although Kurosawa is rightly figured into the J-horror phenomena and is arguably its greatest practitioner –Cure was made one year before the breakthrough J-horror film, Hideo Nakata’s Ring– his horror films don’t fit perfectly into the J-horror mold, which perhaps explains why only one of his films has been turned into a US remake, Pulse. The point is not that his films are not frightening in the same way as J-horror (they are), but that they seem to have more invested in the human condition (lack of communication, breakdown of the family, loss of identity, technological dependency, alienation from nature, etc.) than the average J-horror film. Some of the other great J-horror films also touch on these issues (Ringu and Inugami, for example), but if Michelangelo Antonioni had been born in Japan forty years later and made J-horror films, they would be like Kurosawa’s!

With Tokyo Sonata Kiyoshi Kurosawa takes a partial step back from his traditionally contemplative horror Kammerspeils for the genre that the great Yasujiro Ozu made most of his films in, the gendaigeki (films dealing with contemporary life). In a sense, Tokyo Sonata is a reverberation on Ozu’s classic gendaigeki, Tokyo Story (1953), which looked at the changing social values in post-world war 2 Japan, using the family as a microcosm of the strains between tradition (a mother and father living in Onomichi) and modernity (their married children living in Tokyo). Kurosawa’s film ultimately looks at the same cracks and fissures that appear in the family fabric, but within the context of Japan’s current economic meltdown. Even though the film’s finale veers away from the realism of the gendaigeki, Ozu’s shadow is visible in the countless shots of passing commuter trains (or their off-screen sound).

The main protagonists of Tokyo Sonata comprise a “traditional” Japanese family: hard working salary man husband Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa), his dutiful, devoted wife Megumi Sasaki (Kyoko Koizumi) and their two sons, ten year oldish Kenji (Inowaki Kai) and teenager Takashi (Yû Koyanagi). Ryuhei becomes a victim of ‘downsizing’ and loses his company job. Rather than let his family know he pretends that nothing has changed and spends his day idling about in the city park or the local library with countless other salary men ‘in between’ jobs, recalling Laurent Cantet’s Time Out (L’Emploi du temps, 2001). Meanwhile, back at home Kenji pines for piano lessons after spotting the young, attractive piano teacher in his neighborhood; Takashi decides to join the US military; and Megumi eats away inside while her family slowly crumbles around her. Ryuhei is reduced to taking up menial jobs (including a lavatory attendant, which must be a veiled homage to Murnau’s The Last Laugh) and tries to hang on to his dignity in the only way he knows how: by enforcing his patriarchal discipline. He refuses to allow Kenji to take up piano lessons and forbids Takashi from joining the US army; but, like everything else, Ryuhei’s authority is undermined (which is one of the other themes of the film, clearly marked in the scene where Kenji embarrasses his school teacher by telling him in front of the class that he saw him reading ‘erotic manga’ on the subway) when Kenji swaps his lunch money for secret lessons and Takashi enlists with his mother’s tacit approval. The gendaigeki portion of the film comes to its dramatic apex in the scene where Ryuhei confronts Kenji over his illicit piano lessons. After Kenji raises his voice, Ryuhei slaps Kenji across the face. An angry Megumi sends Kenji to his room upstairs and tells Ryuhei that she knows he is unemployed (“Screw your authority,” she tells him). Kenji comes back down and throws his cheap Casio (which he found in the garbage) at Ryuhei. Ryuhei chases him up the stairs. We hear Kenji’s off-screen yell and the shot cuts to Kenji falling down the full flight of stairs. He is taken to the hospital, and leaves with only a few cuts and bruises.

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