Reports from the Front Line of the Japanese Middle Class: Tokyo Sonata

Despite being abruptly fired from his middling Tokyo office job, by-the-book salaryman Sasaki Ryuuhei still heads out the house everyday clad in his suit and tie. His stay-at-home wife, Megumi, is taken for granted and unsatisfied. Their two sons are similarly miserable. Older son Takashi is rarely seen around the house and has a crappy part-time job handing out tissues on the street. The younger son Kenji is pocketing his monthly lunch money to take piano lessons behind his parents’ back after his father forbids him from doing so. If you haven’t already guessed, Tokyo Sonata isn’t a very happy movie.

I can’t say I have much experience with Japanese film. I’ve watched a few here and there, as well as read a book on the subject, but I’m far from being anywhere close to knowledgeable about them. However, upon having this film’s Netflix envelope shoved into my face the other day, I figured now would be a perfect time to catch up on my Japanese movie watching.

Between living in Saitama for four and half months and listening to a bunch of Omokage Lucky Hole, I’ve become really interested in the lives of the Japanese middle class. While Tokyo Sonata is about as dysfunctional as an OLH song, it lacks the grime, which is instead replaced by heavy helpings of melodrama.

But with that said, the movie’s first hour and change is quite down to Earth, and probably the strongest part of the film. Ryuuhei’s early days of unemployment consist of loitering around in some godforsaken outskirt of Tokyo, chatting with a friend who’s also pretending to be employed, and is offered a ton of crappy jobs at the local unemployment office. Family meals are often quiet, tense, and purely mechanical. Everyone just wants to finish off their meal and do their own thing, but at the same time put up some manner of pretense by forcing trite dinner conversation. These tense and slightly frustrating interactions are punctuated by dramatic, realistic and compelling outbreaks of anger that don’t feel gratuitous.

However, at just over half-way in, things take a dramatic turn for the worst–both for the characters in the film, and my opinion of it. In a fashion not dissimilar to a Maeda Jun story, the writers pile on the drama in a bid to keep things moving. But I’m making it out to be worse than it sounds. While the later part of the movie certainly goes over the top in putting its characters through hell, most of the situations aren’t particularly out of the realm of possibility, and in some ways feel like realistic releases for the characters’ frustrations. The film’s slow-paced and realistic depiction of these events also make them slightly easier to swallow.

What nearly kills the movie is a subplot that involves the US Army recruiting international soldiers (read: Japanese) to fight in some nameless Middle Eastern country, obviously resulting in a good amount of drama for certain characters. While what happens to the other characters is a bit extreme, this bit is completely above and beyond anything that can actually happen, and contrasts negatively against the relative stark realism present in the rest of the film. Thankfully, the movie spends so little time on this plot point that you hardly realize it’s there. However, there is one scene around this plot point that nearly completely destroys the movie, but thankfully it turns out to be Just a Dream.

This drama is needed for the movie to make its point, and for the characters to go where they need to go. However, I feel some of these plot points could have been toned down so as not to contrast so sharply against the first hour of the movie, which is really nice to watch if you enjoy people being convincingly frustrated all the time.

I’m not a terribly great judge of acting ability, but I can tell that the acting in Tokyo Sonata is way better than the types of crap one sees broadcasted across Japanese airwaves day in and day out. Everyone is more or less realistically tense or depressed a lot of the time, and the more dramatic moments never especially feel overdone–even when what’s actually happening on screen is a little ridiculous. There are some instances of contrived acting, but they revolve around people tossing and turning while sleeping or waking up from nightmares–things that don’t happen very often, so it’s not a huge deal.

The film’s direction and cinematography are similar to the few other Japanese films I’ve seen, which basically entails a lot of far away shots, and shots taken from behind objects. Nothing particularly stood out to me, but the style of shooting and slow paced directing complements the film nicely. This style of direction, combined with gray, mundane, and at times grimy locales do a good job of thrusting you straight into the heart of crappy Japanese middle class life. While there’s some semblance of a soundtrack, it hardly appears–and when it does, it doesn’t especially help things. I could see what they were going for the grainy flute and piano recordings, but they just overpower scenes rather than complement them.

I can’t tell you how good Tokyo Sonata is compared to other Japanese films, but just as a movie, it’s pretty good in doing what it wants to do. Some parts of it are contrived, and certain technical elements don’t fit very well, but it has heart and pushes through towards a quiet and appropriate ending. My favorite parts of the movie were the instances of domestic violence, but then again one of my favorite scenes in The End of Evangelion is when Shinji strangles Asuka.

5 thoughts on “Reports from the Front Line of the Japanese Middle Class: Tokyo Sonata

  1. I have to admit that I skipped this based on its premise, the whole struggling middle class in the age of deflation thing, complete with husband pretending to go to work, being something of a cliche now. Maybe I was unfair?

    While it doesn’t deal particularly with middle class angst, my favourite film depicting the inner workings of a Japanese family is Koreeda Hirokazu’s Still Walking, starring two of my favourite actors, Abe Hiroshi and Natsukawa Yui.

    1. I’m pretty new to Japanese film, like I said before, so maybe this sort of plot has been done to death? You probably weren’t unfair, and if you have that strong a bias against the premise I can’t really recommend the movie to you, since it’s probably going to be exactly what you expect.

      I’ll make a note of Still Walking and will check it out when I get the chance.

      1. I don’t know if it has been done to death in films, but the idea of salarymen hiding their redundancy from their families has crossed over into the popular perception of the Japanese over here in the UK.

        I’ve not seen a great many Japanese movies, I’ve tended to just watch those with Ueno Juri, Ikewaki Chizuru, Shibasaki Kou and so on, plus a few highly rated ones.

  2. I thought the film waxed laughably melodramatic, with rather unbelievable characterization (and older brother enlisting in the US military was not nearly the worst challenge to suspension of disbelief, as far as I’m concerned). Compared to the awful, paint-by-number dramas that Japan puts out on a weekly basis, this is admittedly not a bad film, but Kiyoshi Kurosawa is better at genre flicks than social commentary and it shows.

    Seconding lastarial’s suggestion to look at Koreeda Hirokazu (besides Still life, you should check out Daremo shiranai).

    More importantly, if you’re interested in both middle-class Japanese families, Shouwa era culture and distinctive cinematographic styles including extremely low-angle shots, an Ozu marathon is a must. Start somewhere around Ochazuke no aji.

    1. What did you think was the most out there part of the movie? No need to worry about spoilers…

      At this point I can’t really comment on the characterization since I already forgot, which probably goes to show how unmemorable the movie is? I wrote this review literally right after watching it. I still maintain the first hour and change is pretty good, though.

      But yeah, thanks for the suggestions. Seems I have more on the list now than just old tokusatsu films and yakuza movies…

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