When the father is canned at work, an average Tokyo family goes into slo-mo freefall in “Tokyo Sonata,” a quizzical dramedy by Kiyoshi Kurosawa that puts some fresh juice into the waning step of the onetime J-horror specialist. Movie never develops the blackly comic bite of others dissecting the modern Japanese family unit —classically repped by “Family Game” — and would also benefit from 10 to 15 minutes’ worth of trimming. But Kurosawa’s ironic, quietly spacey take on characters in massive self-denial is entertaining enough to attract modest arthouse returns beyond Japan.
When his company outsources its administration department to China, loyal salaryman Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) doesn’t dare tell his family he’s been made redundant and spends his days queueing at a job center and dealing with his professional shame. Meanwhile, at home, wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) goes about her duties with almost military precision, maintaining a facade of family life that only exists around the dinner table, with eldest son Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) and younger Kenji (Kai Inowaki), both equally disconnected from their tightly-wound dad.
Script, developed by Kurosawa and Sachiko Tanaka from an original by Aussie Max Mannix (“Dance of the Dragon”), has some early fun with the father’s attempts to hide his joblessness, in particular his chance meeting with an old friend, Kurosu (Kanji Tsuda), at a free-porridge charity outlet. In a similar quandary as Ryuhei, Kurosu has developed his joblessness into an art form, programming his cell phone to call him at regular intervals and, in a funny sequence when he invites Ryuhei home for dinner, even pretending the two work together in order to fool his wife.
But just like Kurosu’s wife, Megumi is not quite the home-making machine she appears to be. Already going quietly nuts trying to deal with her sons’ alienation and her own treatment by Ryuhei, she spots Ryuhei by chance one day lining up for his free porridge, but keeps the news to herself for the time being.
Kenji, in the meantime, has taken his life into his own hands, using his school-meal money for secret piano lessons (against his father’s wishes) and blossoming into a real talent under his teacher, Kaneko (Haruka Igawa). When all the family’s secrets and lies start to spill out, a chance event sends it unravelling even farther.
Though there’s nothing here that hasn’t been dealt with in other Japanese movies, pic benefits considerably from its pitch-perfect performances — especially Kagawa as the diminutive, wild-eyed paterfamilias, and the graceful Koizumi as the wife in desparate need of companionship. Kurosawa’s skill (seen in his best J-horrors) at suggesting so much more than appears onscreen is a further plus, without going into the mystical realms of his earlier non-horror, “Bright Future.”
Switch of tone in the final act, featuring an extended cameo by Kurosawa’s favorite thesp, Koji Yakusho, is more problematical, mixing broader comedy with a resolution that spells everything out too literally and at unnecessary length.
Technical credits are modest but get the job done, with especially subtle use of the limited space in the family’s home by distaff d.p. Akiko Ashizawa, who shot Kurosawa’s far more visually ornate “Retribution” (2006).