Tokyo Sonata (Japan/Neth/HK 2008)
Posted by Roy Stafford on 10 January 2009
Tokyo Sonata won the Jury Prize in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section of the Cannes Film Festival in May 2008. It must have been something of a surprise for many in the Cannes audience. Director Kurosawa Kiyoshi (born 1955) has spent a long time paying his dues and his reputation in the West is based mainly on horror films such as Pulse/Kairo (2001) and Cure (1997). However, although seen as a genre filmmaker, Kurosawa has also been celebrated as an auteur, part of a relatively young new wave of Japanese directors and someone whose films have been remade as American genre pictures at the same time as being celebrated on the festival circuit. In the UK this hasn’t meant much of a theatrical presence as yet. Tokyo Sonata will be only the second Kurosawa picture to get a release (after Pulse in 2005). The surprise is that, at first, Tokyo Sonata seems a long way away from the horror and crime films.
I think that the film is possibly an example of the ‘salaryman film’ genre. I hesitate because the term is thrown about with gay abandon by critics. The salaryman description appears to have begun to circulate in Japan during the 1930s, but perhaps becomes really important in the 1950s as the post-war economic miracle increased the number of white-collar workers at the major corporations. The definition of a salaryman is tight – seemingly only the workers in the offices of the zaibatsu or their modern incarnation in the form of keiretsu (the giant corporations such as Mitsubishi). Other white-collar professionals such as doctors, architects etc. are not ‘salarymen’ (unless, presumably, they work for the corporations). Wikipedia has a useful discussion of the term and a list of conventions for representing the social type in the media.
Outside Japan, it is perhaps the salaryman who represents the specifically Japanese business culture – even though characters with similar traits can be found in any advanced industrial economy. In the UK during the 1970s and 80s we were constantly told about the successful Japanese economic system in which the salaryman would have a job for life as long as he conformed to the expectations of his employer. This meant company loyalty, long hours, collective physical and team-building exercises etc. This was mainly treated with amusement in the UK until it became clear that Japanese companies like Toyota, Honda and Nissan were buying ailing British car companies and that all high quality manufacturing was Japanese-controlled. But just as we got used to accepting this, the Japanese economy slowed and in the 1990s entered a long period of comparative stagnation.
The salaryman has become a well-known social type, appearing in manga and anime as well as comedy films – the best-known being the 48 film Tora-san series of gentle social comedies with a central character who gets to do things that the salaryman can’t. A salaryman film could be understood in terms of the broader generic category of the shomingeki – films about ‘ordinary people’ or the ‘little man’. Critics have often cited Ozu Yasujiro as the creator of – or at least central figure associated with – this category in his time at Shochiku Studio in the 1920s. By the 1950s, however, when the salaryman concept really took hold, Ozu was mainly making films about middle-class families with family members moving outside the confines of the salaryman role.
Most of the popular salaryman films haven’t been released in the UK, but I do remember how enjoyable I found Shall We Dansu? (Japan 1996). I shudder at the memory of the terrible US remake with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez, but the original captured the boredom of office life and the terror of unconventionality, featuring a white collar worker who each night from his train window sees into an upstairs ballroom dance school. When he plucks up the courage to go in one night, he falls in love with this strange Western pursuit and with the dance teacher. The remainder of the film traces the difficulties in maintaining ‘face’ as the man moves between the dance school (and competitions) and his office and home where he doesn’t want anyone to know his secret (and certainly not his wife and daughter).
Apart from this film, I think most of my contact with salaryman culture has come from the popular novels (horror, crime etc.) that have started to become available in the UK in the last few years. Because of this, aspects of Tokyo Sonata were not so surprising for me. The film focuses on a typical nuclear family (in itself a change from the extended families of the 1950s and 1960s). Sasaki Ryûhei loses his job in the opening sequence. He is the head clerk of the ‘admin section’ of a corporation that has decided to move administration to China, where workers are just as efficient – but less expensive to hire. Ryûhei is bewildered by the swiftness of his redundancy and decides not to tell his wife, Megumi. She doesn’t have a job and is frustrated by the boredom of being at home. The couple have two sons. The older boy is about to graduate high school/junior college and is rarely home for meals etc. The younger boy develops a passionate interest in the piano – in defiance of his father’s negative attitude. The family is of course a microcosm of lower middle-class Japanese society and the film sets out to explore how the family will cope with redundancy and its impact upon the stable traditional family structure with its gendered roles and expectations about employment prospects.
The film is relatively slow with little happening on the surface, but Kurosawa’s skill enables him to gradually build up a sense of despair. It’s hard to pin down how he achieves this because it is so subtly done through camerawork, mise en scène and editing. (In the still that heads this entry, the four family members are all carefully looking at another family member who does not return the look, but looks at someone else – the family is clearly not a collective entity.) In particular, there is good use of long shots and crowd scenes, picking up on the incongruity of salarymen in suits joining queues at soup kitchens and lining up in impossible lines of applicants for the few jobs available. As the narrative develops, Kurosawa begins to explore several aspects of the salaryman type as well as some current concerns within Japanese society. Two examples are the convention that salarymen will sing in karaoke bars – neatly picked up in a job interview that Ryûhei has clearly not prepared for – and the recent controversy over the non-combatant status of the ‘Japanese Defence Force’ (which was involved in the post-invasion operation in Iraq). This latter narrative strand involves the older son in a plot development that seems quite ‘realist’ but is in fact an invention (at least I think it is!). This is a good example of the disturbing nature of the seemingly coherent narrative in which we seem to be following a kind of social realist drama, but something formal or possibly generic is tipping us the wink that it isn’t really like that. Something similar happens with the piano playing. By contrast, Megumi has an adventure which is rather more clearly represented in terms of a crime genre film (possibly wandering into Kitano Takeshi territory). This section of the narrative is played almost as black comedy and I can see some audiences not wanting to go along with this odd mixture of tones and styles. I found it intriguing and engaging but definitely disturbing. Most critics have asserted that there is nothing of the ‘supernatural’ about the film (i.e. the generic quality of Kurosawa’s ghost stories), but I’m not so sure. I’ve only seen a screener so far and I’m looking forward to seeing the film on the big screen when I can check out a couple of scenes which seemed to me to suggest the modern urban ghost story. There are also some instances of elliptical and non-linear editing which contribute to the disturbance.
Overall, I thought this was a fascinating film that seemed to say a great deal about the state of Japan today – or rather, perhaps, the state of the Japanese lower middle class.
I’ve seen the film on the cinema screen now and there a couple of things to add. First, what I thought might have been a ‘ghost’ is not, although the scene itself after a funeral is quite disturbing. Second, the film worked better on the big screen and in particular the ending which I found very emotional and the lighting and composition of the final shot was quite remarkable – almost a moment of spiritual renewal. I’ve also realised that the UK distributor of the film is Eureka, responsible for the excellent Masters of Cinema DVD series. They have a website for the film which shows the exhibition dates in the UK (and has a nice collection of stills). This is the second time I’ve seen this style of distribution with just three prints and screenings organised across the UK over several months. What I don’t understand is that the film has not been booked (according to this list) in Manchester or Edinburgh, two of the top 3 locations for specialised films outside London. This seems an odd way to promote such a wonderful film.