Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 09, 2008 4:38 pm 
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Kiyoshi Kurosawa's family game

Parental job loss leads to family meltdowns leading to collective desperation, crisis, and tentative resolution. That is the trajectory of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's new film which has its weird uneasy moments, but departs notably from the sui generis horror mode the director of Cure, Pulse, etc. is most noted for, at least abroad. And justifiably noted: this new younger Kurosawa's creepy strangeness at its best is very original. In this latest effort he shifts to the sad humanism of Fellini's La Strada (which the director suggested his principal actor watch to get a take on what he was doing) or the old master Akira Kurosawa's unbearably touching Do-des-ka-den.

Not as comically raucous, violent or eventful as Yoshimitsu Morita's 1983 The Family Game, Tokyo Sonata nonetheless deals similarly with kids in revolt in a disintegrating middle class Japanese family. When Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) loses his managerial job the effect at home is gradual and subtle because he pretends it hasn't even happened, going out in suit and tie every work day as usual. Japanese men are commonly so shame-averse and obsessed with appearances, Ryuhei's concealment of job loss doesn't seem surreal as it does in Laurent Cantet's Time Out but almost natural. In fact the library Sasaki's out-of-work classmate Kurosu (Kaniji Tsuda) shows him to while away daytime hours seems full of similarly idle suited men. Kurosu and Ryuhei have met near a lunchtime free-food line both are patronizing. Even there, Kurosu has set his cell phone to ring five times an hour and holds mock business calls. His bravado impresses Sasaki, but Kurosu is closer to desperation than Sasaki realizes. Sasaki's own emotional collapse comes on more gradually, and shows up in increasingly ill-repressed anger.

While dinners in The Family Game were a hilarious battleground, and family meals in Japanese films, Ozu's included, traditionally are times for significant developments, Kurosawa deliberately stages meals in which Sasaki family members barely ever speak more than a few monosyllables. Ryuhei's wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) suffers in silence, suspecting even from the first day, when she happens to catch her husband sneaking in the house early, but saying nothing. Meanwhile their two sons have their own stories. The older teenager, Takashi (Ju Koyanagi) has a nothing job giving out tissues; he and his friend can't get anyone to take them and dump a big box of them into the river.

Takashi eventually decides to join the US Army; in the story, which extrapolates from current trends, the Japanese government has granted permission for a hundred or so to do that, and Takashi's sent to Iraq. The younger son, Kenji (Kai Inowaki), though innocent and sweet-looking, is an outspoken misfit at school, publically mocking his teacher in front of the whole class for reading erotic manga on the train. Kenji finds a lovely piano teacher, Kaneko (Haruka Igawa), and when his father utterly rejects his taking lessons, uses his monthly school lunch money of 5,000 Yen to secretly pay for them. Kaneko discovers that Kenji has an extraordinary gift and wants him to go to a special school, but this only leads to a violent confrontation with his father--and Megumi's more pronounced alienation from her husband. Once it's clear Ryuhei's jobless, he has no family authority and his efforts to block both sons' choices become even more totally futile.

When interviewed at the New York Film Festival, Kurosawa said that some of the big laughs his film received at Cannes were "wildly inappropriate," but "occasional chuckles" would be fine. Ryuhei's antics with Kurosu and Kenki's scenes with his teacher certainly are comical. So is the moment when Megumi discovers Ryuhei in red overalls secretly working part-time on a clean-up squad at a shopping mall. This incident leads to a two-hour flashback to a surprising event at home of Tarantino-like proportions. The continuation of that bizarre adventure, involving strangers wandering off in a car, may owe something to Takeshi Kitano.

From then on the plot leads in directions that are alternately tragicomic and uplifting. Takashi has chosen to work out his salvation in his own far-off way. Nothing else is resolved in the family, but Kenji's talent may be rewarded. There is business with a new-model small Peugeot with a vanishing hardtop that may be unnecessary, and the last scene, though touching, is somewhat indulgent. On the other hand, there and elsewhere Kurosawa shows he has not lost his skill at achieving haunting moments with minimalist means. The complexly neutral cityscapes have a typical cold, unnerving beauty.

Kurosawa worked out his story with Sachiko Tanaka from a script by the Australian writer Max Mannix--giving more importance in their rewrite to the older son and especially to the wife, who has her own distinct and climactic episode, something outside the usual male-dominated Japanese family mindset. Though there's some uncertainty of tone and some cutting might have helped, Kurosawa tells an interesting, sometimes even moving story and has completely escaped from his alleged recent "J-horror" genre doldrums. This film won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes this year--the only Japanese title to get a Cannes award. It's been bought in the US by Regent Releasing.

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