Tokyo Sonata: The Nuclear Family in Disarray

Kiyoshi Kurosawa, best known for his horror films, takes a turn to the quotidian in Tokyo Sonata (2008). Set in post-bubble Japan, the film examines the middle-class Sasaki family as it collapses. Replaced by outsourcing, newly unemployed Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) desperately feigns normalcy to conserve his family’s traditional paternal hierarchy. Much like a sonata, Kiyoshi and cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa compose a piece that weaves an assortment of instruments––here, the minutiae of the domestic sphere and the broader implications of the political––that despite their disparate melodies, sing together in harmony. When the locus of horror is the quotidian, even the wind can terrify.

Tokyo Story begins in the Sasaki house. A newspaper floats down to the ground from the dining table, a stormy wind rustling the pages of coffee table magazines. An open sliding door rattles against the gale and Megumi (Kyōko Koizumi) rushes over to close it. From the low tatami viewpoint of the camera, the audience watches Megumi while she hurriedly mops up the rain water by the door’s entrance. As if momentarily entranced by the ferocity of the outside climate, she slowly slides the door back open. The wind responds, violent whistles soaring in. The curtains, taken by its force, dance around Megumi’s kneeling figure. The same storm surrounds Ryuhei’s office––the silhouettes of outdoor curtains billowing through sheer beige blinds. With the careful attention to framing and light (Akiko Ashizawa), the film produces a frightening feeling of impending doom.

Disaster follows: Ryuhei loses his job. But what ruptures from this break of normalcy is not simply the horrors of unemployment. Rather, it reveals the Japanese nuclear family succumbing to the pressures of a neo-liberal, late-capitalist, patriarchal society. Megumi soon discovers that Ryuhei’s daily routine is just a performance yet continues to enable the illusion of his patriarchal control. While Ryuhei spends his days wandering the streets aimlessly amongst crowds of “human waste” left behind by corporate restructuring, Megumi stays confined to their home (132). As a shūfu (housewife), she preoccupies herself with cooking for her two sons Kenji (Kai Inowaki) and Takashi (Yū Koyanagi). But her days are filled with abject solitude. Ritu Vij writes:

“The routines of cooking and cleaning on which the family depends notwithstanding, Megumi’s inability to stand up to Sasaki when Kenji (a musical prodigy as it later turns out) is denied piano lessons (driving him to use his lunch money to pay his teacher instead), or support Takashi’s attempt to gain parental permission to go overseas (to join the US army, a fictional device), reveals matricentric domesticity for what it is: a labor without sociality, bereft of the public forms of recognition deemed vital to subjectivity (132, emphasis added).”

The film takes a dark turn in its second movement, where the consequences of their performance is laid bare.

The Sasaki family members respectively crescendo into despair: Ryuhei accidentally runs into his wife while working his mall janitorial job and must face his hypocrisies; Megumi is kidnapped by a burglar (Kōji Yakusho), whom she approaches with a calm indifference, and together they release the ache of their respective traumas; their youngest son Kenji is jailed for attempting to sneak into a bus’s baggage compartment and spends the night surrounded by other inmates. The next day they each return home, sitting down together for a meal at the dining table––returning to the very centering object of their performative lives. But no longer are they bound to their former modes of restrictive subjectivity:

“…[Ryusei] Sasaki steps into the [abyss,] embracing uncertainty, vulnerability, and the quotidian realities of his life—a job cleaning toilets in a shopping mall, but now with a concentration and “being-with” that [delineates,] especially a form of “being-with” his family that forsakes hierarchy…Sasaki transcends his objectively defined precarity and with it the gendered hierarchies that demand a masculine performativity destructive not only of the family but Sasaki himself (Vij, 133).”

The very fact of their performance laid bare, the dining table transforms into an object of their new togetherness––enabled by a newfound vulnerability.

Tokyo Sonata ends, quite fittingly, with Kenji’s piano recital. Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune fills the audition hall. Lit by a warm spring light, Kenji moves his hands delicately across piano keys, poetry emanating from them. Curtains gently sway in a soft breeze that enters the room, carrying with it the soft melody and enveloping the room in its warmth. The last note of Kenji’s piece fades into silence. Ryuhei and Megumi walk up to him, the three exiting together, their footsteps creaking against the wooden floor.

*Tokyo Sonata (dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa) is available to stream for free (with ads) on Tubi. It is also available on Mubi.

Sources/Further Readings

Kennicott, Philip. “Shedding Moonlight on Japan; Kiyoshi Kurosawa Composes A Darkly Lyrical ‘Tokyo Sonata’.” The Washington Post, Jul 17, 2009. ProQuest, https://search.proquest.com/newspapers/shedding-moonlight-on-japan-kiyoshi-kurosawa/docview/410304062/se-2?accountid=12205.”

Vij, Rity. “Affective Fields of Precarity: Gendered Antinomies in Contemporary Japan.” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, vol. 38, no. 2, 2013, pp. 122-138. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23412533. Accessed 7 Mar. 2021.