The family guy

By Jim Keogh

protectedimageIn Tokyo Sonata the shame of unemployment for a laid-off Japanese executive is like a demon gnawing away at everything he values: his relationship with his wife and sons, his perception of himself as a man, his very sanity. The humiliation is so intense for Ryuhei Sasaki, that he pretends to head off to work each morning rather than reveal the truth to his family — subjecting himself to demeaning interviews (including one where he’s ordered to sing karaoke) and commiserating with other unemployed men who crowd the park benches wearing suits for show.

But this film is no easy parable about the terrors a weak economy wreaks on the white-collar populace (you need only read a newspaper for that story). Instead, Tokyo Sonata reveals how Ryuhei’s work situation is a symptom of deeper problems in the Sasaki household, where wife Megumi is evolving into a desperate housewife, disaffected by an existence of ceaseless service to her family, and younger son Kenji shows promise as a piano prodigy but can’t rally the support of his father, who regards music as a frivolous pursuit.

Tokyo Sonata asks whether it is possible to retrofit the mind of a man for whom centuries of acculturation have wired him to believe certain things, to act a certain way. We can all empathize with the indignity of Ryuhei having his professional status downgraded, but from this distant shore it’s impossible to fully comprehend the elaborate ruses that Ryuhei would rather implement than tell his family the truth as his vision of a patriarch-dominated homestead crumbles.

Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa takes narrative chances, especially toward the end when Megumi confronts a thief. Their interactions, played with a delicate mix of broad humor and painful self-revelation, could have derailed the film. But Kurosawa stays true to the characters, allowing them enough rope to decide whether they want to pull themselves back into the boat, or stay forever adrift.

Tokyo Sonata will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and at 1 and 3:20 p.m. Sunday in the Jefferson Academic Center at Clark University as part of the Cinema 320 film series.

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