Tokyo Sonata shows what happens when illusion of authority crumbles

TOKYO SONATA is a portrait of a seemingly ordinary Japanese family. The father who abruptly loses his job conceals the truth from his family; the eldest son in college hardly returns home; the youngest son furtively takes piano lessons without telling his parents; and the mother, who knows deep down that her role is to keep the family together, cannot find the will to do so. From the exterior, all is normal and the same. But somehow, a single, unforeseeable chasm has appeared within the family, threatening to disintegrate them.

Born on July 19, 1955 in Kobe, Hyogo prefecture, Japan, Kiyoshi Kurosawa started directing 8mm independent films while studying Sociology at Rikkyo University. In 1980, his first work SHIGARAMI GAKUEN screened at PIA Film Festival. Kurosawa then spent the next few years studying with directors Kazuhiko Hasegawa and Shinji Somai. In 1983, he made his commercial debut with the feature fil KANDAGAWA WARS. In the next couple of years, THE EXCITEMENT OF THE DO-RE-MI-FA GIRL and GUARD FROM UNDERGROUND were released and Kurosawa attracted enthusiastic fans. In 1992 Kurosawa won a coveted spot in the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab with his original screenplay CHARISMA.

His SUIT YOURSELF OR SHOOT YOURSELF! series (1995-1996) and THE REVENGE series (1997) created more avid Kurosawa fans. Following the debut of CURE at the 1997 Tokyo International Film Festival, the film achieved international recognition and was theatrically released in many parts of the world. Kurosawa went on to win the Best Director prize for CURE at the Yokohama Film Festival. In 1999, LICENSE TO LIVE screened in the Berlin Film Festival Forum, and CHARISMA was highly acclaimed at the Cannes Film Festival Directors’ Fortnight. Later that same year BARREN ILLUSION was screened at the Venice International Film Festival. In 2001 PULSE screened at the Cannes Film Festival in Un Certain Regard, where it won the Critics’ Prize. Later that year, the film also garnered the Critics’ Prize at the Sitges Film Festival.

Two years later, Kurosawa returned with BRIGHT FUTURE, screening In Competition at the 2003 Cannes International Film Festival. That same year DOPPELGANGER, about a man who faces his alter-ego, was selected as the opening film for the Pusan International Film Festival. RETRIBUTION, finished in 2006, was officially selected for the Venice Film Festival.

Bijan Tehrani: What motivated you to make this film?
Kiyoshi Kurosawa: I made a number of horror films in a row, and so I wanted to do something that was from far as horror as possible. The other impetus was that, while living in Tokyo, I had observed a number of different small problems in daily life. I was wondering if I could take all of these very small observations and cram them into one film, so that the sum of its parts reveals something interesting. With the family structure, I could have each one of the family members have their own story, and I could balance out the stories between the young and old, male and female. And I could put them together and various stories would be exposed.

BT: How much of the film is based on real events? People who I saw the film with said they were surprised to see some of the issues brought up; issues like the economy and employment.
KK: Most of what you see in the film is based on reality in some fashion. But remember that the film was shot a year ago, and so the economy is in a much graver situation now. But at the end of it, unemployment was not the issue that I was hoping to explore. Rather, what I was interested in was the strange psychology of a man who loses his job but is unable to tell his family, and tries to do everything he can to keep it a secret. And, as I understand it, that psychology is not uncommon in Japan.

BT: This film has many layers. One is the man who is the main authority in his family, but also the issue of the woman questioning her own life. Is that a common feeling among females in Japan?
KK: I think you are very perceptive about what I was trying to do in the film. Authority is an illusion in Japan today, but everyone has to play a certain role and carry on. But I am interested in what happens when this illusion crumbles. I believe that there is a new brighter future that may be on the horizon.

BT: How did you come up with the visual style of this film? Some of it feels similar to your other movies, but at the same time this film has its own, unique visual feel.
KK: There are not a whole lot of structural differences in the visual style between this film and my horror ones. But in the horror films that I have made, I was always conscious of how to create shadows; unnatural shadows across the screen. In this film those shadows turned into light. If you look at the film, there is some natural light seeping into the frame, which is different from my previous films.

BT: The casting of the film was brilliant. How did the process go?
KK: I had worked with the father, played by Teruyuki Kagawa, and the mother, played by Kyoko Koizumi, once before. I always wanted to work with them again, because they are so talented and very popular in Japan. The children were both found through auditions, and they are both newcomers.

BT: The ending is hopeful. Is this happy ending realistic?
KK: Maybe it is not realistic, but in a sense I expected that. The film is shifted into more of a sense of fantasy and allegory in the second half, which I hope will make the ending seem not too outlandish. I didn’t feel that simply staying in the realm of reality could allow me to find some kind of happiness. I felt that I had to go into a realm of fantasy so that the piano playing in the end has a certain transcendent quality, and it does give them a happy ending.


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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