Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Director of Tokyo Sonata

Mar 27, 2009 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is best known in the U.S. for his spine-tingling supernatural horror films Cure and Pulse, but the concerns addressed in his latest film, the family drama Tokyo Sonata, provoke chills of a different sort, as they reflect the ills of the current global economic crisis. In the film, Teruyuki Kagawa plays Ryuhei Sasaki, a 46-year-old office administrator who loses his job when it is outsourced to China. Sasaki is too ashamed to tell his wife and two independent-minded sons of his job less, so he continues to dress for work each morning and spends his days standing in unemployment lines and food distribution queues, acclimating himself to the rituals of the jobless while keeping his whereabouts a secret from his family.

As much as corporate downsizing and unemployment are pressing international issues today, when Kurosawa shot Tokyo Sonata well over a year ago, they provided a catalyst for him to explore a communication breakdown within a typical, modern Japanese family. Sasaki’s older son, Takashi (Yu Koyanagi), frequently is absent from home and has ideas of joining a U.S. military surge in the Middle East. Kenji (Kai Inowaki), the son in grade school, desires to take piano lessons but is refused the opportunity by Sasaki, who is compensating for his humiliation by stubbornly fighting to maintain a façade of authority in his home. Sasaki’s wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) remains confined to the house, but she is witness to the outside world’s effect on her fracturing family unit.

Kurosawa began filmmaking while he was earning his sociology degree at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, and although he acknowledges that Tokyo Sonata is a departure, even his fantastically eerie horror films investigated the contemporary state of the human condition in the face of irrepressible forces.

In 2008, Tokyo Sonata was awarded the Jury Prize in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section. I spoke with Kurosawa through an interpreter at the Westwood offices of distributor Regent Releasing earlier this month.

When the script for Tokyo Sonata came to you, had you been thinking about the kind of film you wanted to make next?

I didn’t have any idea in detail, but I had made a string of horror films, and what I knew is that I wanted to make something that is as far from the genre as possible. And fortuitously, it was just then that the producer brought me the script of a family drama. So I knew that I wanted to do it.

One aspect of the film that I found fascinating was the culture of the unemployed that is depicted in the film. Is this visible on the streets of Tokyo, and did you interview people to hear their stories?

I wasn’t able to interview any of those men, but I did hear that there are quite a few. And there were books on the subject that I was able to read. But we did shoot the film over a year ago, and I think unemployment is a little bit different now, as we see on TV and in the news. People in Japan now realize that unemployment is something that can happen to anyone, so there might not be quite as many people who try to keep it a secret from their family, as you see in the film. But I think, at the time, it was quite commonplace. 

In the articles I’ve read about this film, the writers have tried to identify commonalties between Tokyo Sonata and your horror films. Were there techniques from your horror films that you decided to abandon for this film, or were there any techniques that you felt were useful in Tokyo Sonata?

Because I wasn’t making a horror film, I knew that I didn’t have to worry about providing scares. So I didn’t plan to use any horror genre techniques that I had used. That said, something I had always done with my films, even before I started making horror films, is to be aware of what’s visible on the screen, and the characters, and to always show them being influenced by something from the outside, something not visible within the frame. And that could be embodied by light, shadow, wind and even sound. And that type of technique and approach to filmmaking is something I was conscious of  with this film, too. 

Have you seen the American version of Pulse?

I haven’t seen the film. I actually want to, but frankly, the company remade that film without telling me about it. They didn’t report to me about anything, so, to this day, I haven’t seen it.

How was Tokyo Sonata received in Japan?

I haven’t objectively analyzed the response in Japan, but while it wasn’t a wide release, I think it was fairly successful for the modest release that it was. Currently in Japan, only a very small, limited number of films become the huge box-office blockbuster hits, and the film certainly wasn’t that. It wasn’t as if it became a national sensation.   

Were there objections to this modern depiction of Japan, especially considering that your films are shown internationally?

I didn’t really receive any complaints, but because we’re dealing with a very mundane, typical family in Japan, not just the people of Japan, but including myself, we were all concerned about how the audiences abroad would respond to this. Will they understand the concerns that the Japanese families are experiencing? And, one thing that I was able to get out of playing this at festivals and finding out how people would respond, is the universal power of film. There were very few obstacles to people understanding the film. It seems to be just as resonant abroad as it is in Japan. So, it’s reinforced that faith in the power of film for me.

As an American viewer, I recognize issues in this film that are familiar to our society. What do you feel is distinctly Japanese about this family?

I’m not sure how it really appears for American audiences, but I think the most distinctive characteristic of a Japanese family is perhaps the lack of dialogue or communication between the family members. You can see that there’s lots that they want to say, but they keep it hidden within their hearts. And even when they’re eating dinner together, for instance, the younger son wants to play piano, but it takes him a long time to be able to say that. There’s a long silence, and he has to find the right time to be able to say that. I think that type of family dynamic, with that type of relationship that Japanese people have, might be unique.

The second half of the film moves much faster than the first half. Was this dictated by the script? Did you want to accentuate the difference in pace?

I think, at the script stage, I was very much aware not so much of changing the pace but rather the tone of the film. I wanted something drastic towards the end. I determined that a realistic development of the story won’t quite get us to that point. So, I wanted to take one step into the realm of fantasy and allegory and shift the tone a little bit, so that maybe we’re able to interpret it in a slightly more abstract sense.   

Has directing Tokyo Sonata influenced how you will approach your next film?

I think the one thing it gave me is the confidence that I can try something new and be able to succeed in it. Now I’m inspired to be able to go out and find new stories and new things, and that’s a strong urge that the film gave me. So, the next film that I make probably will be something very different from either a horror film or Tokyo Sonata.

So you haven’t decided on your next film yet?

Unfortunately, I have nothing to announce, but I am developing a few projects, and hopefully one of them will come to fruition soon.


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