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In Japan, the unemployment rate reached an historic high of 5.60 in July 2009. Today, over 30% of the work force is still compelled to take casual labor, with more than 5,000 casual workers living in internet cafés because they cannot pay their rent. Statistics, however, do not tell the human story of unemployment. Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, known for horror movies such as Cure and Pulse, has dramatized the social and psychological effects of Japan's economic woes in Tokyo Sonata, winner of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Shot in the outskirts of Tokyo and backed by the haunting score of Kazumasa Hashimoto, Tokyo Sonata is a brilliant and disturbing film that grips us through outstanding performances and an unsettling social message.
Tokyo Sonata follows Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa), a 46-year-old administrator in a Tokyo health care equipment company who loses his job after his department is outsourced to China. Like Vincent in Cantet's 2001 film Time Out, being suddenly without a job is damaging to Ryuhei's pride and he withholds the information from his wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) and their two boys, Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) and 12-year-old Kenji (Kai Inowaki). Struggling to save face and maintain his moral authority, Ryuhei leaves home each morning dressed in a business suit and tie, spending his day standing in long lines looking for work and joining homeless men and other unemployed seeking food at a soup kitchen.
Ryuhei's wife Megumi goes about her routine household chores without complaining and never questions her husband, even when he comes home each night looking increasingly despondent. It is obvious that the layoff has simply crystallized the underlying discontent in the Sasaki family and Kurosawa shows the family eating dinner together in a sterile environment with little or no communication. In an incident at school in Kenji's sixth grade class, Kurosawa also shows how the loss of moral authority can lead to sudden disintegration. After Kenji is admonished by the teacher for passing on another student's manga, the boy insensitively tells the entire class that he witnessed his teacher on the train reading porn, causing chaos in the classroom.
Ryuhei soon discovers that he is not alone. While eating in the park, he meets an old school friend, Kurosu (Kanji Tsuda), who is also unemployed and also has not told his wife. "The lifeboats are gone", he tells Ryuhei, "The water's up to our mouths." Kurosu is engaged in even a bigger deception, programming his cell phone to ring every five minutes to give the impression that he is receiving work-related calls. He later invites Ryuhei to his house for dinner so that he can introduce him to his wife as a co-worker. Ryuhei is interviewed for jobs but none of them are the type of work he is looking for. One prospective employer asks him what he can do and he impulsively answers that he can sing karaoke.
As the charade of pretending to go to work continues, Ryuhei takes his anger and frustration out on Kenji who has become fixated on taking piano lessons. When he learns that the boy has been spending his lunch money on piano lessons, Kenji is beaten and thrown down the stairs, requiring a trip to the hospital. The older son, Takashi, is also severely chastised and asked to leave the house when he tells his parents that he intends to join the U.S. military to fight in the Middle East. From this point, events seem to spiral out of control and, in a jarring twist that takes the film in a different direction, Megumi is held hostage by Dorobo, a home-invading robber (Koji Yakusho).
The burglar is almost a comic character who, while being driven around town by Megumi with a knife thrust in her face, admits that he's been a failure at everything he has done, even robbery. The frightening drive ends in a shack by the pitch-black sea where a suddenly contrite Dorobo asks Megumi if she is a goddess. It is here that she discovers what is available to her in life if she is freed from illusions and wonders aloud how she can start over. "Wouldn't it be wonderful", she asks, "if my whole life was a dream so far and suddenly I awaken?" When more disturbing things happen to the family, things seem as if they could not possibly get any worse. Yet in a coda of renewal, the calming music of Debussy tells us that if we open our heart to its enchanting melody, we can awaken to the serenity of knowing who we really are.
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