Search View Archive

When the Outside World Crashes Within

Tokyo Sonata, Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Now Playing

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films often envelope their characters and viewers in an intense sense of isolation and despair. When a young woman, paranoid of supernatural attack, slowly retreats into a back room, the camera moves forward to lead us further away from her world. At the end of a dimly-lit street, someone suddenly jumps down a high tower to her death. The horrified reaction of a witness is lost among the grey shades of many faceless, out-of-focus passers-by. Tokyo Sonata, Kurosawa’s latest work, starts with a less grotesque but equally poignant image of isolation: a dutiful housewife tries to close a sliding door to keep out a coming storm, but on an impulse opens it a little more, as if for a breath of fresh air. As the story unfolds, we enter a world where the everyday dilemmas of a shomen-geki threaten with the nightmares of a horror film.

The title and the story of a family’s dissolution both evoke comparison with Tokyo Story (1953). Yet Ozu’s masterpiece pointedly places the modernized capital city in the rest of the world, where an elder couple visit their grown-up children for the first and last time before they return to their rural home to await solitude and death. A journey in opposite direction occurs in Late Spring (1949), when before the daughter’s marriage and the father’s resignation to solitude, the two take a final trip to traditional, serene Kyoto to visit Buddhist temples. These journeys locate Tokyo and the generational conflicts portrayed in the stories in the context of post-war Japan’s hard negotiation with tradition and Westernization. As Donald Richie points out, the dramatic tension in Ozu’s post-war works often results from the characters’ different positions in this negotiation, so that a father who has “returned” to things more purely Japanese would stand in contraposition with a daughter who is on her “way out” to explore the possibility of a more western way of life.

In Tokyo Sonata, trips in both directions are frustrated by the new intricacies of globalization. An underemployed teenager finds his only way out is enlisting in the American military to support its expansion in the Middle East; his father, a dutiful salaryman, finds no place to return when he loses his job to the company’s outsourcing to cheaper Chinese labor. As the world is flattened, places in it are homogenized and fragmented simultaneously. Tokyo, and by extension everywhere else in Japan, China, or the Middle East, has become just another segment in the global division of capital, resources, and profit. Tradition, memory, collective identity, the rich sources of drama and meditation in the shomen-geki of Ozu and Naruse, are rendered irrelevant in the new world order. Both the old and the young generations are entrapped in a mundane but nightmarish version of the cosmopolitan Disneyland in the Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s The World (2004), where a simulated Eiffel stands besides a Big Ben, with a performing troupe decorating the sites with Indian folk dance, Japanese tea ceremony, or African tribal music.

This world of spatial amnesia is an extension of the collective amnesia and loss of identity in Kurosawa’s trademark horror films, where murders appear motiveless; horror and despair emerge out of context. In Cure (1998), a young man bereft of short-term memory mesmerizes people with a cigarette lighter and the question “who are you?”; his desperation to invade others’ inner lives is as insatiable as his desire to implant blood-thirst in their minds. In Pulse (2001), living people lose contact to reality and each other, helplessly driven to suicide by the ghosts attacking from the Internet. In Tokyo Sonata, the decaying streets, dark hallways, and deserted factories are replaced by dispassionate faces in the unemployment line, or the line for free food; the discussion, with two interlocutors in separate rooms, about death, ghosts, and loneliness evolves into the often silent confrontations in the family dining room. But society remains fatally disengaged and dehumanizing. Its motto is summarized by the younger son’s elementary school teacher, “Just ignore me so I’ll ignore you, too.” People are defined by dress (changing between business suits and the red overalls for the cleaning staff), forms (resumes for job-hunting, applications for the army), and numbers (the 138 Japanese volunteers in the U.S. military, No. 86 in the unemployment line). A driver’s license is just an expensive form of identification; its potential for freedom and escape is forgotten. Although no demon figure or supernatural being comes to ask “Who is the real you?” the question sinks subtly into each character.

Kurosawa continues to use deep staging and deep focus to alienate the characters from each other and distance them from the audience. The result is estrangement and a sense of the uncanny. The mother, both embodiment and victim of the traditional family order, prepares food quietly in the foreground while behind her back some male member of the family tries to sneak in without the ritualistic announcement “I’m back.” The younger son sits at the dinner table, pretending to focus on a bag of chips, while in the kitchen behind him the father’s violence is about to explode like a volcano. When the family gathers at the dinner table, spooky silence replaces conversation. Kurosawa often shoots these futile rituals from under the stairway, through the kitchen shelves or across the living room, using obstacles to lock each character in his or her own secret. Hollowed out of its essence, the rituals that sustain traditional familial bonds appear eerily untrue. Yet people cling to them, even to the extent of conspiring with others to keep on appearance. The characters try to escape the roles enforced by the society, but are terrified by the prospect that such an escape would cost them every sense of who they are. This irony turns the domestic sphere into an existential drama of the absurd.

Futile rituals. © Regent Releasing.
Futile rituals. © Regent Releasing.

This world evokes the paranoid fantasies of Buñuel and David Lynch, much more than it does mono no aware, the classical feeling of permanence within transience that would finally reconcile and transcend the worldly conflicts in the works of Ozu and Naruse. According to Paul Schrader, these conflicts represent modernization’s threat to the Oneness of man and nature in traditional Zen philosophy. In his films, Ozu uses silence and emptiness—positive elements in the mu, nothingness—to reaffirm nature and the Oneness. In the world of Tokyo Sonata, however, nature disappears. The outside world invades the characters’ inner lives in the form of nightmares. Silence, emptiness, or the familiar elements in Ozu’s codas—an empty street or a room under the changing daylight, for example—become sources of loneliness and alienation. It’s hard to imagine an outside of this world. When an unexpected turn near the end reconnects the wife with nature and offers her a glimpse of the transcendence, it looks more like a fantasy, a filmmaker’s gift to the audience. The light comedy introducing this turn also sounds out of tune with the overall absurdity and black humor. Harmony and transcendence are finally achieved, however, in the sublime finale with the younger son’s rendition of “Clair de Lune.” Art unites the family and transcends all.


Lu Chen

LU CHEN is a contributor to the Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2009

All Issues