Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Economic and spiritual crisis in Japan

A driving rain rakes the side of the house. A woman rushes toward an open set of doors. She hurriedly slides the doors shut, and begins wiping water from the floor. But does she really want to shut out the storm or does something about it appeal to her? She sits for a moment, and then slides the door open. She's like a swimmer on a chilly day, putting her toe in the water to test its temperature.

This early-picture storm isn't the only one that's raging in director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Tokyo Sonata." Japan also is the midst of an economic storm that's displacing workers, wounding male pride and bringing hardship to families. We soon learn that the woman who watched the storm in the movie's opening scene is married to an administrator whose job has been outsourced to China.

So why did this woman open the window? And why does her husband say nothing when his supervisor asks him what else he might want to do in the company where he has performed so ably for many years? Could it be that, on some unspoken level, both husband and wife want a storm to sweep through lives that have begun to stagnate under the burden of routine? Do they sense that even when times were good, their lives were going nowhere?

Kurosawa, who is no relation to the great Akira Kuroswa and who mostly has made horror movies, is a tricky director, and "Tokyo Sonata" doesn't always yield its meanings easily. On one level, Kurosawa does a straightforward job of charting the impact of economic crisis on a family of four. Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa), the father, fears that he might lose face. That's why he doesn't tell his wife (Kyoko Koiszumi) that he's unemployed. Instead, he dresses in a suit every morning, and leaves the house as if nothing has changed. He lines up for free food at lunchtime, takes a few interviews but doesn't find work until he lands a job as a janitor at a shopping mall. There, he trades his normal business attire for an orange jump suit. He cleans toilets.

Meanwhile, his wife tries to maintain the routine of the household. The oldest son (Yu Koyanagi) seems to be a sullen slacker. Eventually, the young man attempts to turn his life around by joining the U.S. military. He's shipped to the Middle East.*

The more interesting break with expectation comes from the family's youngest son (Kai Inowaki). Inowaki's Kenji is a piano prodigy who uses his lunch money to pay for lessons with a teacher (Haruka Igawa) who quickly recognizes the boy's genius. Dad, who can't always contain his anger, opposes his son's piano lessons. For Dad, reared with Japan's nose-to-the-grindstone ethos, Kenji's musical interests are nothing more than a pointless whim.

What could have been a routine drama about economic hardship morphs into something stranger and more resonant. A late-picture development sees Koizumi's character kidnapped by an intruder (Koji Yakusho) who's lurking in the family's home. Mom's forcibly removed from her surroundings, and put in a situation where she must use the driver's license she recently acquired, perhaps because she's been craving movement and independence. The family doesn't own a car.

I'm not sure that Kurosawa finds an entirely convincing way to blend all of the personal and social forces that ripple through a movie that grapples with everything from the psychology of its characters to the perils of a boom economy gone bust -- with stops along the way for snide asides about karaoke and bloated male egos.

But the movie may be better for not being totally seamless. The characters in "Tokyo Sonata" are trying to break out of unsatisfying molds, but don't know how to go about it. They may not find the new beginnings that they yearn for, but, by the end, they seem transformed. Into what? They're not entirely sure and neither are we. That's probably a good thing.

*A correspondent, better versed in military matters than I, says that the U.S. military has accepted foreigners throughout its history. I originally had interpreted the recruiting of foreigners -- as depicted in the picture -- as a recent development.

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