so-na-ta n. An instrumental musical
composition, as for the piano, consisting of three or four independent movements
varying in key, mood, and tempo.
"Tokyo Sonata" opens with a mid-level employee being "let go," his position outsourced to a twosome from China, who, by the way, speak very good Japanese. Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) is devastated - humiliated really. How can he face his family? He decides not to tell them; rather he leaves for work every day, but instead of going to his office he makes the rounds looking for employment. The problem is he has no skills other than those of an middle-manager. Nevertheless he rules the family roost, and this can not change. His family may be crumbling around him but he will not loose face.
When we first meet Ryuhei's family, they seem typical enough (1): his wife Meguni (Kyoko Koizumi) is a stay-at-home mother who cares for her husband and tries her best to protect her two sons; 18 year old Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) wants nothing more than to join the military; and young Kenji (Kai Inowaki) goes behind his parent's back to take piano lessons though the family can't afford it (2). Unable to find satisfactory work, Ryuhei is eventually forced into menial janitorial work in a mall (3).
As the family's situation worsens, each member decides to take matters into their own hands. Meguni brings work home in order to supplement the family income. Takashi, the older son, ups and joins the military. And young Kenji uses his lunch money for piano lessons.
Director Kurosawa (no relation to Akira Kurosawa) is known primarily for horror films, but here he shows a delicate sensitivity and awareness of the plight of a family coming apart. The dinner scenes, for example, are filmed in a straightforward manner, the camera simply recording what might seem like an ordinary Japanese ritual: the husband being the first served, the others waiting till he begins eating. We realize that this has become an empty ritual.
In the last third of the movie Meguni, after discovering that her husband is cleaning floors in a mall, runs blindly from him, not because he is cleaning toilets and floors but because he has not confided in her. Now away from home, she is kidnapped by a homeless man (Koji Yakusho), which leads to an unexpectedly madcap episode that at first seems out of place in this film's examination of contemporary social problems. Meguni is forced to follow the homeless man turned thief (5) while her husband turns maniacal, all this as their young son begins to realize his potential as a pianist. We wonder how these disparate and chaotic actions can possibly come together. But come together they do, in a most moving and satisfying manner.
Young Kenji's piano teacher has entered him in a competition where he plays Chopin's "Clair de lune." In the audience is his mother, soon after his father arrives. There is no empty ritual here, no question of saving face. There is only sublime art that brings these people together, like a Chopin sonata made up of independent pieces that form a satisfying and glorious whole.
The acting is superb, especially Kyoko Koizumi who is challenged to play the gauntlet of emotions from submissive wife to captured prisoner to determined mother.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language.