As Bright Future suggested before, Kurosawa Kiyoshi's sensibility can tap personal discord as easily as it usually tapped a horror-like, apocalyptic atmosphere in his genre movies; and now Tokyo Sonata goes even further. It is a family picture. But the real surprise is not the shift in genre from horror to drama, but from influence, from Tarkovsky to Tati. The result is one of the most eccentric and successful tragicomedies in recent memory.
Really, Kurosawa's apocalyptic mise-en-scène used for his horror films remain intact in Tokyo Sonata, it's just that instead of creepy menace proliferating around an eerie, empty Tokyo, it is a comedic, general unemployment and dissatisfaction that effects the populace. Same mass malaise, different genre; and the mood, like in a Tati film, lets Kurosawa spin off and riff on the ideas, locations, and characters in incredible cinematic ways, space, distance and blocking in widescreen, off-camera, and in-depth elaborating everything unexpectedly. In fact, the film often pokes fun at how easily this family drama could segue into horror and Kurosawa's past, especially in its absurdist gags teetering towards extremes of emotion and threat, as well as a late introduction of a Kurosawa regular, but the comedy does not undercut the film's picture of a laid-off husband and his family, each hiding their failures and unhappiness from one another.
The director's previous weakness with drama has been saved by the convention of unhappiness around the dinner table and the farce of social deception amidst deadpan malaise. Any complaints of cliché or over-simplification melt away in the face of the film's bizarre metaphysical interpretation of this most everyday of stories. Every Kurosawa composition is first composed in space, and then layered and extended into the distance, and whether for horror, comedy, or general unhappiness, the effect is inexplicably unsettling and expectant—something off, uncanny, threatening. Potential is all around, but for what is unknown.
Flashing lights from a passing subway, rustling curtains, those uncanny tracking movements of the camera, and Kurosawa's tableaux that seem sideways labyrinths for the characters to navigate—the strangeness does not come from within the family but from an inexplicable metaphysical discord in the environment. The unreal seeps its way in—like a poison, its source hidden, its cause unclear—but it throws everything and everyone out of wack, the workings of the normal world appearing broken in the most subtle of ways, barely sensed. This description could fit Kurosawa's horror films like Pulse or Cure, but in Tokyo Sonata the filmmaker finally finds a more human expression, especially in the film's off-kilter comedy set within Ashizawa Akiko's wondrous photography, one moment glimmering, the next monochrome and spare—a setting too exquisite, as if something must be in the air. So congratulations to the filmmaker and his sympathetic cast (not to mention the brief, whimsical dirge-like soundtrack), for pulling hard at the strange and finding something sometimes sweet, often funny, generally bizarre, and more often then not quite human.