Tokyo Sonata by a Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is one of the milestones of contemporary Japanese film culture. Since its release in 2008, it has provoked much commentary and discussion as to its social meaning.
The plot revolves around the family life of Ryuhei and Megumi. The film starts as a depiction of the daily routine as the couple deals with the school and youth problems of their two sons Takashi and Kenji, and Ryuhei is occupied with household chores. The opening scene, however, already offers some turbulence to the viewer: Ryuhei is fired from his managerial job, but he says nothing to his family when he gets home. The irony is also that he lost his job partly as a result of the reform in the company that Ryuhei initiated himself.
The storyline continues with Ryuhei pretending to go to work every day; it does not take long for his wife to find out the truth but she plays along. The tensions within the family continue to grow, especially between the father and his sons. It is interesting that Kurosawa, famous for his horror films, produces a very different work this time. While the family drama gets grimmer and grimmer, it does not result in murder. However, the frustration continues to grow due to financial constraints, as Takashi cannot find a job either and is even applying for the US army because he dismisses his professional future in Japan.
The secrecy within the family deepens, as Kenji cannot follow piano lessons due to the lack of money but still finds a way to attend them by spending his lunch money. The story reaches the climax when all family members find themselves in a very dangerous situation. Megumi is kidnapped from their home by an unemployed person; she is forced to drive a stolen car to the mall where Ryuhei has a secret cleaning job. Even through his wife sees him, she makes no recognition of the encounter and returns to her kidnapper at her own initiative. They end up spending the night together, as the man tries to make sexual advances, and Megumi gives in to the robber. The man is actually unable to engage in the intercourse, and Megumi ends up reassuring him that he is not a failure.
In the meantime, Ryuhei finds an envelope full of cash, as he cleans the mall toilet. He runs away after seeing Megumi and gets hit by a truck. Ryuhei turns out to be alive but he returns the money to a lost-and-found office. Dramatic events also happen to Kenji as he gets arrested, while Takashi is sent to serve in the Middle East.
The symbolism and the underlying meaning of the film are deeply social. Unemployment is certainly a central theme that transcends the plot. Kurosawa succeeds in demonstrating how a job loss and financial challenges can deepen the already existing family tensions. In my view, the night between the robber and Megumi is a symbol of her entire marriage with Ryuhei. Moreover, this occurrence shows how extreme the implications of social instability can be.
Besides the societal topic of unemployment in Japan (which can be seen more broadly as effects of unemployment in the developed world), the film also concentrates on putting the typical Japanese family under the microscope. It shows how the professional identity of the father is key to his role within the family – without his job the family is starting to fall apart. Megumi is an even more interesting character, as she is depicted as the symbol of a Japanese female homemaker bound to be supportive of her husband in all times and circumstances.
Overall, Tokyo Sonata is an excellent film that explains the contemporary societal and family outline in Japan.