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Admin Chief and family patriarch Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) loses his job to the forces of globalization (the Chinese can fulfill his role cheaper), but keeps it secret from his family. Domesticity, already tense and stifling, teeters on the edge of crisis. Oldest son Takashi, inhabiting a different temporal zone from the rest of the family, looks to find peace by going, quite literally, to war. Youngest son Kenji (Kai Inowaki) harbours escape plans of his own, through a burgeoning musical talent. Even put-upon wife and mother Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) feels the pressure build inside her, and her escape will be the most dramatic of all.
The first 25 minutes of this tale crackle along in entertaining fashion. The various trials Sasaki faces in his quest for dignified employment are both sobering and amusing. In one sequence the action cuts with perfect timing from Sasaki being asked to perform a capella karaoke at a job interview, to Sasaki beating the hell out of accumulated junk at a soup kitchen. The comic tone is reinforced by the character of Kurosu, Sasaki's high-school classmate, who has turned unemployment and fooling the family into an art form. Or so it seems.
It is the abrupt change in circumstances for the ill-fated Kurosu that ushers in a new, darker tone for the story. At this point the writers go after poetry, with various characters articulating the futility of trying to regain the past. A cameo by Koji Yakusho attempts to reintroduce some comic thread in the second-half, though this serves to make the abrupt end of that particular character arc somewhat incongruous. In short, when the film goes after poetry, it falls flat. Takshi's utterances on Japan-America relations are clunky, and Kenji seems wise far beyond his years in commenting on his piano teacher's divorce. Quite why she chooses to open up to a 10-year-old is also a mystery.
The film throws everyone into crisis, and then brings them back at the end for temporary respite, in a scene that indulges sentimentality beyond acceptable limits. The journeys, not the outcomes, seem to be the thing. Especially Megumi's, in flight from the home to a place at the edge of the world, where she reaches for but can't quite obtain the light. Some will see this as a bold, lyrical choice by the filmmakers. For me it falls flat. Koizumi acts well with what she has been given, all the actors do, but these scenes are hauntingly lit interlopers with lines written by Samuel Beckett that seem to arrive from another film. If you accept that abrupt tone change after the first 25 minutes, you may celebrate this film. I found it too much to take.
Kurosawa films Tokyo evocatively, the family home sandwiched between the ever-present trains and similarly ubiquitous power lines. The acting is mostly top drawer, with only Yu Koyanagi as Takashi failing to keep his end up. The issues addressed are all-too-real for many in present-day Japan, and beyond Tom Wilkinson's character in The Full Monty faced a similar predicament to Sasaki. Unfortunately, the philosophising in the second half is less than convincing, and the ending far too contrived. Kurosawa has said some of the laughter at Cannes was inappropriate. On the contrary, the decision to ditch the comic thread in the latter sequences of the film, and the non-linear portrayal of events, is where the inappropriacy lies. Five stars for the first half.
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