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Tokyo Sonata: Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Other Masterpiece

There's something strange about being a critic, especially one like me that effectively has no editor, deadlines or professional courtesy that I have to follow. No one assigns me work per se, but it is work I have to do when I write these reviews. To make matters odder I'm effectively a print writer in the digital era where even the websites carrying the names of once prestigious publications such as Variety or Fangoria have taken to the content mill formula. I'm not saying I'm on the level of Siskel & Ebert mind you, just illustrating the fact that their aren't too many of us hanging around even on whatever small niche it is that I occupy. Of course I'm not one to throw the baby out with the bath water and declare the era of film criticism to be dead or anything dramatic like that. But I will say this era we live in for better or worse has given us access to more criticism than has ever been published before and that comes with its natural highs and lows. When I first got into this I always thought there would come a point where I would transition into something else be that the billionth podcast on the planet or something akin to the 100th video essay published on Youtube today, but for better or worse this is it for me. It's not to say I'll never or am incapable of doing something else, but in moments like this I am reminded of the advice of one of my idols Harlan Ellison from one of his appropriately named "Watching" series of commentaries from the long deceased SciFi Channel show Sci-Fi Buzz. "Operate at the level of technology that best serves the job you're going to do". I don't know if this is the best method for me per se, but I have yet to find a better way. This may seem out of place in what is supposed to be a review about "Tokyo Sonata" however I relate it in this way, "Tokyo Sonata" is a film about rapidly changing times and adapting to new horizons and if there is something the director of said film has done better than many of his contemporaries it's that, adapt. In a way that's also what I do with my reviews even if the way I review increasingly seems to become an outdated method. Simply put I relate to "Tokyo Sonata" on a level I do so few films.

Certain films find you at the right time and place in life. When I saw the film "Seconds" it was after I had decided to move on from my career in TV production and months into the pandemic, recent watches in "Cool Hand Luke" and "Raising Arizona" were made right around the time I found out my place of work would be shuttered. "Tokyo Sonata" was first watched by yours truly in the months that I was searching for employment and as I sit here now mere days away from starting a new job I can't help but think about this movie, just as watching it I was reminded of that painful year this film came out and the anxiety that came following The Great Recession. "Tokyo Sonata" is a film that is both extremely of its time and yet contemporary even as it approaches its second decade, it is one of only a few films that I can say in recent years has made me feel some level of empathy for nearly every character in the work. Sometimes scarily so. One of the initial quotes you'll see in the listed trailer above is "Without a doubt the most terrifying film Kiyoshi Kurosawa has ever made. His masterpiece" to which, while I don't necessarily disagree, illustrates an issue that has plagued both the director and his works since the film "Cure" thrust him into the eyes of western viewers. The idea that he's only a horror director, that the best descriptor for him even with films like this "Bright Future" and "Charisma" in his catalogue is "The Japanese Cronenberg". Frankly speaking having watched a number of his films I don't think Kurosawa gets enough credit for being as diverse in his filmmaking as he is, especially here in the west. It's not that he shouldn't be lauded for his horror work, just that I think it sometimes unfairly taints the perception of his non horror works. "Tokyo Sonata" is extremely horrifying in its approach mind you and for some that alone qualifies it being labeled as such, but if one where to do so I think they might miss a fundamental reason as to why Kurosawa seeks to horrify in the way he does in this film. As I alluded to this is a film that represents the year it was released probably better than any film to come since and is a very rare exception in that matter. I can tell you as a kid who was around the age of the film's protagonist when the recession hit, the anxieties of the Sasaki family of the film weren't too dissimilar to that of my own around this time. If not in someways even more so. The economic stranglehold present in the film is not at all exaggerated and to this day I can still remember the homeroom discussions that seemed to occur daily centered around the subject as it was happening real time. I remember the numerous banks closing down a stone's toss away from my home and the somber tone even Christmas had taken within our household. Watching Sonata with the hindsight of my own life circa 2008 coupled with living through the perils of yet another economic cataclysm, I can say that some of the shocking events depicted in this film aren't too unfamiliar especially as we live in an era of record high profits and mass layoffs. Even an act like a former salaryman slaying his family out of desperation as heinous it is, feels more like a headline plucked from the news rather an sensationalist look at poor times. Kurosawa makes the wise decision to never show such a thing and its one of many examples of him bringing the audience to the edge of total darkness but never fully embracing it. We never see the Sasaki's oldest boy involved in his delinquent activities outside of their home or what becomes of him after he enlists in a foreign regiment of the US Army to be shipped off to war. We see only but a sliver of Mr.Sasaki's failed job interview but are spared the most embarrassing moment of his much younger job recruiter asking him to sing karaoke. Throughout the film we see a constant battle in the Sasaki family as they both internalize and externalize their anxieties to uphold the "traditional" family structure. We see each member in their own way try to run and skirt their responsibility as it relates to maintaining their household. But therein lies the brilliance of the film, whereas many of film in the past would have condemned "Tokyo Sonata" is a rare case of a film showcasing the disillusionment of society and the "traditional" familial structure while still arriving to a satisfying and ultimately positive conclusion. The way Kurosawa directs the viewer is at times an almost documentary style approach and while not necessarily as distant as something like "The Zone of Interest" it is far from an intimate view of the Sasaki family's life. It's also interesting how he bends the narrative to the various perspectives of the Sasaki family, while it isn't totally nonlinear in its approach, it definitely is willing warp your perception of time to achieve its goal. The only arc of the film that feels somewhat underdeveloped is that of the Sasaki's older son but I think that does serve its purpose in relation to his parents and their distant relationship. Their "failures" in raising their eldest child reflect in how they raise their younger son in Kenji. It's odd to see a film be able to converge and diverge various storylines while still being able to maintain an almost crucible like environment in its center location. The at times suffocating nature of the Sasaki's household can border on melodrama but that only adds to the horrifying nature of the film. Still I would not argue for this being a horror film. I think if anything this adds to my own personal frustrations with the futility of genre, no piece of art is exactly one thing, it's all an assimilation, even if you were to paint with one color, that one color is still a mix of many others. "Tokyo Sonata" is no different in that approach, in its simplest of terms its a drama but in a more broad context its one of my favorite slices of life ever put to screen. While some of the scenarios in this film are pitch black in their bleakness or in other cases outright absurd and nearly bordering on total lunacy, that's life. Without risk of trying to sound more profound than my years on Earth will allow me nothing quite matches the energy of having a metaphysical crisis over a stubbed toe, but being able to laugh off the more costly inconvenience of someone stealing your catalytic converter than Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Tokyo Sonata". Well maybe "Charisma". No matter how bleak the present may seem there is always a tomorrow, while that tomorrow can bring a litany of anxieties and frustrations so too can it bring new joy. Which I believe is the message that this film wants to convey to its audience. The Sasaki family ultimately survives their near collapse and do so by making the best of their situation and embracing the potential of their young son. We are no more certain of their future at the end of the film than we were at the beginning but are left with a sense of optimism. The final scene of "Tokyo Sonata" is one that can only be experienced and is simply haunting in its understated beauty and the perfect end to such a film.

"Tokyo Sonata" is currently available to stream on Tubi but can also be rented or purchased on Amazon digitally. If you are able to find the now out of print bluray or dvd for a reasonable price I recommend that too, as well as some Kiyoshi Kurosawa's lesser explored features such as "Bright Future", "Doppelganger","Charisma" and the newly released "Chime". While I can't say they'll all reach heights of "Cure" and "Pulse" they definitely are worth a watch to see the range of someone who in my opinion is still one of cinema's most underrated directors. Long Live Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

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