Friday, October 10, 2008

Tokyo Sonata

Tokyo Sonata is a film of a profound sadness, not peppered lightly across the picture's surface, but wedged so deep into its marrow that it's impossible to shake off. A thoroughgoing critique of the demands of patriarchy in contemporary Japan, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's film unfolds not as political tract, but as affecting family drama, a balancing act that impresses through its skillful subsuming of abstract thematics into the particularities of individual lives.

Taking in the familiar milieu of the Tokyo salaryman, Sonata begins with the dismissal of Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) from his middle-management post. Summoned into his boss' office, he's asked what other positions he may be qualified for. He remains silent, his back to the camera. Cut to him silently boxing up his belongings and he's off to his comfortable single-family dwelling to break the news to his wife. Or, as it turns out, not. In a system that's based so heavily on the assertion of male authority (in the workplace, in the home) there's simply no way to accept the sudden dismissal of that authority. Above all, one mustn't let on to one's family.

So Sasaki continues to dress up every morning in suit and tie, tells his wife he's off to work and then sets out to suffer the dual humiliations of the employment agency (In one scene he's forced to sing a song for the amusement of a foppish job counselor. He lets out a single tortured note before Kurosawa mercifully ends the sequence, cutting to Sasaki thrashing discarded applicances with a metal rod in a junk heap.) and the free food line at the park. But Sasaki is hardly alone. He soon uncovers a whole culture of out-of-work businessmen, determined, above all, to keep up middle-class appearance. In one of the film's moments of bitter humor, a fellow unemployed salaryman programs his cell phone to ring five times every hour, illustrating the painful level of commitment that these men are forced to bring to their act of deception.

But what are the larger costs of this enforced maintenance of social roles? Expanding his critique, Kurosawa widens his purview beyond Sasaki's perspective, giving equal weight to the lives of the other family members; his wife who, for all her intelligence, finds her social function reduced to baking donuts; his older son, a drifter who eventually joins the American army and gets deployed to Iraq; and the younger son, an aspiring musician who is forced to take piano lessons on the sly since Sasaki forbids them. Eventually the plotting becomes a tad labored, as Kurosawa and his screenwriters attempt to involve all four characters in suitably dramatic adventures, pushing each to his inevitable breaking point, but when we consider the comprehensive scope that these manipulations allow Sasaki to bring to his view of contemporary capitalist society, and the delicacy with which he continues to handle his characters even as he puts them through their exaggerated paces, a few bits of credibility straining melodrama hardly threaten to undermine the whole project.

Especially when it becomes clear just how devastating Kurosawa's critique really is. In a society that demands above all the assertion of male authority, the psychic cost on its inhabitants quickly tends toward the unbearable. The desperate affirmation of that authority, at all levels of society, means that it inevitably manifests itself in violence and the attempted humiliation of others, especially when it feels threatened. When Sasaki's wife learns of his dismissal, the father's misplaced attempts to reassert his lost authority result in the beating of his youngest son. When that son's teacher finds his control over his students threatened he resorts to acts of humiliation. When a would be kidnapper finds his hold over his female victim to be all too tenuous, he makes half-hearted stabs at sexual aggression. But whether this questionable authority stems from the film's literal patriarch (Sasaki), his daytime stand-in (the teacher), or from a broader jurisdiction (George Bush, implicated through the Iraq War subplot), Kurosawa takes pains to continually undermine its propriety. In stable socio-economic times, the ethical backbone of the power structure may go unquestioned, but when the system starts to break down, the uses of authority become more and more desperate until it can only express itself in increasingly oppressive measures against its own citizenry.

But with the breakdown of patriarchal control comes the opportunity for an openness to other kinds of experience. In the film's breathtaking final scene, Sasaki sets aside his prior opposition to his son's piano playing - a serious pursuit of the arts being antithetical to the accumulation of wealth and therefore anathema to capitalism except as an ornament of "culture" - and attends a recital in which the boy interprets Debussy's "Clair de Lune", the piece played in its entirety, Kurosawa introducing a few visual cutaways, but allowing the soundtrack to continue uninterrupted. After the performance, both parents walk over to their son, the father laying a kind hand on the boy's head. A bleak, increasingly difficult life may await the family, but, with this single irrepressible gesture, Kurosawa grants them the possibility of a newfound humanity, a humanity open to aesthetic experience and more importantly, to the possibility of a self-assertion for all members of the family. This one gesture doesn't wipe away what must still be deeply entrenched notions of domestic structuring, but it represents a hard won, if preliminary, step in a far more sustainable direction.

My review of Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig's Nights and Weekends has been posted at Slant Magazine.

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