Tokyo Sonata is yet another of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's chilling portraits of micro and macro alienation, a family drama as chillingly controlled and despondent as the horror films that gained him international recognition. In Tokyo, office worker Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) is downsized and chooses to keep it a secret from his family (à la Laurent Cantet's Time Out), making him part of the legion of specter-ish businessmen who roam the city during daytime, pretending to answer work calls while surreptitiously getting lunch at a free food cart. Ryuhei is humiliated by his loss of stature, though he continues futilely attempting to exert authority over wayward teen son Taka (Yu Koyanagi) and younger kid Kenji (Inowaki Kai), the latter of whom rebels against not only his father by surreptitiously taking piano lessons but also his porn-reading school teacher. Domestic conflict occurs out in the open in front of his mother Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), who patiently suffers her husband's severe parental conduct. Concealment, however, is the order of the day, with Kurosawa's characters determined to bottle up emotions and secrets even as they crave release and escape, their repressive tendencies subtly suggested by the sight of Ryuhei zipping up Kenji's backpack, and their fear of (and yearning for) liberating disruption conveyed by an opening image of Megumi longingly kneeling in front of an open door during a storm.
Kurosawa's narrative is, superficially, nothing particularly unique, a deadpan depiction of modern disconnection filtered through the lens of a nuclear family's slow disintegration. But as with much of his work, it's the means to the end that are profound, his indirect aesthetics creating palpable unease, as if reality had imperceptibly, and yet fundamentally, shifted slightly to the right or left, leaving everything cockeyed and unstable. Akiko Ashizawa's deep-focus cinematography strands characters in a labyrinth of constricting physical structures—doorways, shelves, chairs, walls—which are isolating and seemingly un-traversable. Smoothly segueing between tight medium shots and widescreen panoramas, her highly mannered compositions feel illusory, like something out of a nightmare, and as such steep (as does the director's haunting score) Kurosawa's standard story in the realm of the otherworldly. It's a fittingly shaky mood for a film concerned with familial breakdown caused by the absence of commanding paternal influence, and soon so permeates the landscape that—along with Taka's desire to join the American military (permissible under a new law)—it casts Ryuhei and family's disaffection as endemic to a culture plagued by powerlessness and the ensuing confusion, terror and anger wrought by that weakness.
This dreamlike atmosphere engulfs Kurosawa's characters but his story doesn't reduce them to featureless ghosts. Ryuhei, Megumi and Kenji are drawn with sharp, telling lines, thus providing an anchor of realism amid a story that increasingly veers into the unreal. As it allows the focus to swing from Ryuhei (and his struggles to assert head-of-the-family clout) to Megumi, this progression is welcome, allowing for a view of both familial breakdown and reconstitution that gives the story breadth. Still, having so scrupulously established his conflicts and milieu, Kurosawa seems unsure of how to resolve his narrative, eventually settling on sending his protagonists on trial-by-darkness odysseys into the pitch-black night, with Ryuhei (now working as a mall janitor) fleeing his shame, Kenji getting thrown in jail after trying to sneak aboard a bus, and Megumi being kidnapped by a lunatic (Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho) and spending the night in a beach shack. It's the last of these that takes precedence and feels the most false, a too-obvious and straightforward bit of surrealism to underline characters' problems and transformations. Tokyo Sonata recovers from this stumble, however, in Kenji's climactic piano recital of Debussy's "Clair de Lune," a sequence that, in its tonal modulation and manipulation of light and dark to express a sense of simultaneous hope and horror, verges on awe-inspiring.