You can’t put Kiyoshi Kurosawa in a box. Never content to stay in the same genre for very long, his work as a whole is resistant to interpretation, but it is possible to perceive certain patterns in his films, such as a preoccupation with borders. In Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001), a serial killer movie and a ghost story respectively, it’s the border between the natural and the supernatural. In Tokyo Sonata, the story of a typical Japanese family, Kurosawa is concerned with the borders between people, both on a domestic and a national scale.
First among equals in a great cast is Teruyuki Kagawa as Ryuhei Sasaki, a director of administration who is fired as soon as he has successfully completed the outsourcing of most of his company’s labour to China. Unable to face the shame of telling his wife and children that he is unemployed, Ryuhei dons his business suit as usual and kills time during the day by hanging out at the library or joining the queue of an outdoor soup kitchen along with a surprisingly large number of similarly attired unemployed men. In this way, Kurosawa taps into the contemporary Japanese fear of neighbouring China’s economic boom.
But Ryuhei is not the only family member who is lying. The youngest son, Kenji (Inowaki Kai), wants to learn to play the piano. However, Ryuhei, in light of his secret unemployment, refuses. Therefore Kenji uses his lunch money to pay for lessons, often skipping school to attend. Similarly, it is implied that the oldest son, Takashi (Yû Koyanagi), is not going to classes either – an implication that is supported by Takashi announcing suddenly that he is going to join the US army as an overseas volunteer. Ryuhei’s wife Megumi (Kyôko Koizumi) can only wish someone would lift her out of the domestic depression she finds herself in. That is, until she comes home one day and surprises an unemployed locksmith turned burglar, played by the great Kurosawa regular Kôji Yakusho, and decides to run away with him. In a meta-filmic move typical of Kurosawa, it seems that none of the Sasaki family are sticking to the roles he has cast them in. All of this is filmed in Kurosawa’s trademark voyeuristic style, through windows and doorways or from the vantage point of a bridge. These framing devices both create a sense of unease and suggest an additional border: the cinema screen itself.
However, the disparity between the cinematography and Ryuhei and Megumi’s comic behaviour is resolved pretty quickly, and after their respective escapades, both parents are back home in time to attend Kenji’s audition for music school. As a child prodigy, Kenji is something of a deus ex machina, the only character with the insight to see through the borders that people erect around themselves. His beautiful rendition of Claude Debussy’s Clair de lune suggests that Kurosawa perceives some sort of essential harmony in the universe and that these borders are illusory. However, Kurosawa cannot resist a last minute undermining of this interpretation as Takashi, the only character to have crossed any geographical borders, writes that although the Japanese volunteers have been sent home from the Middle East, he has decided to stay and fight alongside the locals. Kurosawa, enigmatic and therefore appealing as ever, declines to say which side Takashi is fighting for.