Tokyo Sonata

Written by Michael Clawson

90/100

Rather than filing into the stream of Tokyo office workers headed to their desks like he used to each morning, Ryūhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) suddenly finds himself routinely getting in line at his neighborhood soup kitchen, surrounded by the homeless, debris, and other dejected men in suits. The patriarch of the middle-class Japanese family that Kiyoshi Kurosawa explores in this unique and profoundly moving family drama, Ryūhei is unemployed after his job is outsourced to China, and he’s too bitter and ashamed to tell his wife and two sons the truth about no longer having paycheck. So he goes on pretending all is normal, when really he’s leaving the house everyday for the unemployment office. Unbeknownst to him, his family is hiding woes of their own. His wife Megumi (Kyōko Koizumi) is slipping into a deep malaise, his older son wants to leave Japan and join the US military, and his younger son, knowing his dad would disapprove, is quietly putting his lunch money towards piano lessons behind his parent’s back.

Kurosawa’s rhythm is characteristically idiosyncratic. There’s a gear shift in pace in the middle section when there’s an unexpected moment of terror, which reminds you that while the movie is primarily a melancholy portrait of a family in crisis, it’s from a director who’s more widely known for his ability to unsettle. In common with other Kurosawa films is the theme of alienation: as each of the Sasaki’s grapple with their individual troubles, they do so in isolation from each other, and their lack of togetherness only exacerbates their unhappiness. It’s perfectly, heartbreakingly visualized in one particular scene: Ryūhei comes home late to find his wife half asleep on the couch, but exchanges only a few words with her before going straight upstairs. “Pull me up,” Megumi practically whispers since she’s half asleep, her exhaustion as emotional as it is physical. No one’s in the room, as we can see in the wide shot that shows us her laying on the couch. Cut to a close up of her hands as she raises them up in the air: “Somebody, please pull me up.” Despite their wanting to, Ryūhei and Megumi can’t start their lives over, and they can’t ever entirely rid themselves of the pressures that modern life puts on them, but perhaps in the end they’re inching back towards family cohesion, towards listening to and supporting each other rather than retreating from each other.

Tokyo Sonata Trailer

Tokyo Sonata is currently streaming on Mubi and available to rent and purchase on Amazon.

To the Ends of the Earth

Written by Michael Clawson

90/100

No matter what she’s asked to do, be it to suffer on a janky amusement park ride that’s more like a torture device or eat an under-cooked plate of food, Yoko has a peppy, exuberant personality so long as the camera is rolling. Behind the scenes though, she’s anxious and fretful. As the host of a Japanese reality travel show currently on assignment in Uzbekistan, Yoko and her small all-male crew often attract the attention of on-lookers as they meander around the country documenting cultural customs and sites, but Yoko (Atsuka Maeda, so wonderful) is too nervous to even make eye contact with the locals, let alone actually engage with them. The fact that she can’t say more than a word or two in the local language doesn’t help. 

In crafting in this delightfully strange character study, Kurosawa moves between tonal registers with the same ease as that with which Yoko turns her bubbly persona on and off for the camera. Offbeat comedy mingles with nerve-wracking tension and suspense as we follow Yoko’s winding, unusual path towards something like self-actualization, or at least a newfound self-confidence. Yoko is a young woman with a fear of the unfamiliar, but even more than that, she’s afraid of feeling trapped. Rather than straightforwardly dissect Yoko’s psychology, however, Kurosawa takes a thrillingly unconventional approach to character, stringing together moments that follow one another unpredictably and reveal only partial, incremental insight into Yoko’s desires and insecurities. It makes her an impossibly alluring character, and Maeda delivers an immensely charming performance. Rather than TV reporting, Yoko’s true dream, we learn, is to be a singer. That detail allows for two slightly surreal musical moments that are as rapturous as they are unexpected.

Recommended

To the Ends of the Earth Trailer

To the Ends of the Earth is currently available to watch through select Virtual Cinema Venues