Tokyo Sonata Review

The Film

Looking at your nations health through the device of the family is a very Japanese cinematic trait. The great Yasujiro Ozu spent nearly forty years filming stories of kin going through the experience of the depression in the twenties and thirties and then, less melodramatically, cultural change of growing westernization in some of his later pieces. Others have done the same since to illustrate how the personal has been changed by the global, and how the islands of Japan have modernised. Directors like Fukasaku explored the relationship with the United States, and more outre film-makers like Takashi Miike have shown the family as anything other than a calm bastion of tradition and set roles.
The Sasaki family in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's wonderful Tokyo Sonata is a household driven apart by globalisation and overstated pride. Ryuhei, the father, is made unemployed when he is "downsized" as his organisation decides to outsource to China. Takashi, the teenage son, goes to war as a Japanese volunteer in the Middle East for the Americans. For Kenji, the youngest son, and Megumi, the mother, the consequences of these events can destroy their potential and their peace of mind.

This family begins with its own hierarchy, rituals, and roles. The chief breadwinner is the head of the household, the faithful wife is the grateful servicer of her sons and husband, and the two sons are student and school kid respectively. With the father's shame at unemployment comes deceit and hypocrisy born of pride, and an elaborate attempt at keeping up appearances. When the two children seek their hopes as a soldier and a pianist, the father is harsh and succeeds in driving each away, and seeing this makes Megumi dream of escape too.
The final act of Tokyo Sonata sees the family running away from one another in the hope of starting all over. The humbled father, now a cleaner, runs from his shame with illicit money. His wife runs off with a failed burglar, and Kurosawa regular, Koji Yakusho. Kenji plans an escape from his squashed dreams, and Takashi learns that he is not protecting Japan by volunteering for America. With the exception of Takashi, they all gravitate back to the home where they find their former roles waiting for them. This may be a sanguine lesson for the Sasakis, but Kurosawa's coda suggest that the rebuilt family can rediscover its identity in the younger generation.

Elements of very dark comedy, moments of nihilism, and some suggestions of the political make for an excellent fable. The world of adults is frequently presented as procession or pantomime with queues for the unemployment office and the soup kitchen, and elaborate games are played to hide the unemployed men's shame from their families. The older and younger generations are disillusioned with each other as Kenji unwittingly destroys his teacher's reputation, Ryuhei gets humiliated by whipper snapper interviewers, and Takashi ends up joining the people he was sent to fight by his betters. For all the Sasakis, young and old, the opportunity to flee their lives is shown to be an illusion and it is a through resignation and humility that they survive as a unit.
This is one of Kurosawa's best recent films which for all its humour and occasional extremity is a serious minded effort. Like in Bright Future, the director seems genuinely angry at the waste of people as time moves on and discards them, but here he suggests that concentrating on the next generation is the only way to overcome this. A very fine and moving piece.

Transfer and Sound

The transfer here takes up 30.7GB and shows plenty of grain especially in the night time shots(see above). It retains the aspect of some of the work that the director has done on DV with a realistic aesthetic and muted tones, and contrast is good if not quite perfect. The image is sharp, detail is strong, if not exceptional, and edges are handled very naturally.
There are three audio mixes, all in stereo. The DTS HD MA track reports an average bitrate above 1700 kbps, the TrueHD track averages around 640 kbps and the standard definition track about the same. The former of the options is clearly the better with surer clarity and a much higher bitrate.

Discs and Special Features

This dual layer blu-ray is about 80% used and the extras presented are reassuringly good. The making of documentary starts with the director talking about each of his leading actors frankly and then the actors speaking about working with him. There is plenty of material from the set as the cast and crew work intercut with thoughts of cast and director on how they co-operated. An interview with the director narrates footage on the filming with him discussing set design, and finally he talks about what he wanted to say with his film. After all the crappy making of featurettes you usually get on DVDs these days, this is really interesting and pertinent stuff with Kurosawa coming over as a bit of a rebel who has grown into his career.

The Q+A session involves the director and his main cast again in what seems to be a carefully choreographed session. The director shows off his "Un Certain Regard" prize from Cannes and gets down to answering questions on the films premiere in Tokyo with his cast. There's the usual humility but also a sense of real pride at the film that all have made.

The same people are reunited for the premiere, along with the actor who played Kurosu who apologizes for his presence and therefore ruining the press shots of director and family! Kurosawa says that international audiences have all responded the same to his film with the same issues of family and recession rife across the world.

A very odd discussion follows this piece on why watching the film on DVD is a good thing with Koizumi applauding the option of pausing the disc whilst you go to the loo! Kurosawa instructs the viewer to enjoy the locations and then the cast discuss their favourite scenes. I really wasn't too sure about this inclusion as a special feature.

The final extra on the disc is a trailer for the film which is the only high definition extra here.

The 28 page booklet showcases an essay by B.Kite on the director and this film in particular. Rightly the writer shows how this film-maker has played with and moved from genre work into becoming a mature artist with a particular interest in the modern world. Cleverly he imitates the director's common device of summary within his films in his writing, and he concludes with noting the similarities with Ozu before claiming that this film's ending is much more open ended than may seem the case. Also included here is a statement from the Director, cast and crew listing, and disc credits.


Kurosawa's film is very much of the times we currently find ourselves in, and Masters of Cinema have delivered another solid Blu-ray release. Some may doubt whether this director is an appropriate inclusion in MOC's catalogue, but they need to watch this fine film before making their mind up.

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Category Blu-Ray Review

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