That the director of Tokyo Sonata, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, is primarily known for his contributions to J-horror seems fitting. Despite the lack of monsters, murderers or critters, Tokyo Sonata is very much a horror film, one with a terrifying message, made all the more frightening for how universal it is. As a study of the effect of the global downturn in the economy, it replaces the occasionally precious wit of Up in the Air with something a great deal more honest. So honest, in fact, that you'll need to run right back to Jason Reitman's film when it's all over so you can laugh away some of the pain.
Tokyo Sonata follows the Sasaki family, chiefly its patriarch, Ryûhel (Teruyuki Kagawa), as the world threatens to crush them. Ryûhel works as an administrator for a healthcare company, but Chinese associates move into the firm and offer to work for less money, and soon the 46-year-old finds himself out of a job. (How strange it is to see a scenario in which non-citizens actually do take jobs people might want, compared to all the blustering we hear in the States over immigrants working manual labor). Ashamed of his predicament, Ryûhel does not tell his wife, Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), and each morning he dresses in a suit, grabs his old briefcase and heads out as if going to his job. Instead, he heads to a job search center and stands in line at a soup kitchen.
There he meet Kurosu, an old friend who also met with downsizing and masks his shame. Kurosu rigs his phone to ring intermittently throughout the day to give the impression that he is fielding calls from clients, sets up a separate bank account for his severance pay to avoid suspicious deposits and gives specific advice for collecting unemployment insurance. They meet every day at the food line, well-dressed and tidy among the homeless, and their shame turns to desperation. Kurosu invites Ryûhel to dinner in an attempt to put off his wife's growing suspicion, but their teenage daughter understands what's going on. Later, Ryûhel learns that Kurosu forced his wife into a double suicide by gas poisoning.
Kurosawa creates an eerie, hollow version of Tokyo, one that recalls the terrible vacancy of a post-infection London in 28 Days Later. We see only a few cars in the streets, and only a few pedestrians, but the lines at the unemployment office and the food line are immense, lines snaking around as far back as the eye can see, as if all of Tokyo has been put out of work. Kurosawa's mise-en-scène is spare but crushing, the lights in the Sasaki home hanging low, so low they appear to touch the characters' heads. We learn of the troubles of the rest of the world when Ryûhel and Megumi's rebellious elder son Takashi announces his intention to join the US military, who are so hard-up for recruitment that they will accept volunteers from other countries. Ryûhel tries to forbid it but has no response when Takashi asks what he can do in Japan. New reports play in the background like Greek choruses, discussing rising troop levels in the U.S. or China's growing economic domination, weighing down further on the family.
Eventually, the pressure begins to affect Ryûhel. He endures the ignominy of the job search, his administrative background awarding him the shot to manage a Happy Mart. When he does get a shot at another office job, his prospective employer humiliates him and forces Ryûhel to sing karaoke to back up his skills. His youngest son, Kenji, spots a piano instructor teaching a child on the way home from school one day and asks his dad for lessons. Ryûhel refuses, so Kenji secretly takes lessons and pays with his lunch money. When Ryûhel finds out, he beats the child despite his teacher's enthusiasm for Kenji's talent and insistence that he's a child prodigy.
What makes Tokyo Sonata such a delight, even in its deeply unsettling effect, are the little truths and details sprinkled throughout. After eating that dinner with Kurosu, Ryûhel returns home and, before he walks inside, pauses at the door and buries his pain and self-loathing until he can force a smile and enter the house. Kenji finds a discarded keyboard in a trash heap and brings it home where he discovers that it doesn't work, but he practices on it nonetheless, trusting to find the right notes like Beethoven, only in this case it's the piano that's deaf. The various burdens of the other family members weigh collectively on Megumi, who knows her husband is unemployed but says nothing, approves of Kenji's desire to learn the piano but cannot sway Ryûhel into agreeing. As he awaits his plane to America, Takashi asks her why she doesn't divorce Ryûhel, and her quick, vague response belies that it's a question she asks herself routinely.
In the third act, each of the three family members who remain in Japan undergoes an event that brings their existential uncertainty to a head. A robber ambushes Megumi at the house and takes her hostage when he discovers no money in the house. She resists at first, but her frustrations with her husband and the feeling of life's futility leads her to follow the robber to a shack on the beach. Kenji attempts to run away from home, and in the process he tries to help a classmate escape his own abusive father. Meanwhile, Ryûhel, now a janitor in a mall, becomes despondent after his wife sees him at his new job. Each scenario plays out in largely an anticlimactic fashion, but there's a blunt sort of poetry to these events, bringing each character face to face with what's eating them and letting them process it quietly.
Tokyo Sonata is a mostly quiet film. Its characters only occasionally shout, and when they do it their yells are dissipated into the void and annihilated like a fire dying in space. Punctuating this low soundtrack are the strains of Kenji's rapidly developing piano playing, which is given its full spotlight in the coda. One of the most moving sequences of any film in recent memory, the recital at the end of the film pulls the characters back together and taking stock of the changes. As Kenji flawlessly plays Debussy "Clair de Lune," we see the final, beautiful message of this surprisingly beautiful horror film: bad things happen and you can't reverse them, but you can adapt and, maybe, find happiness in the world. Not bad for a guy who got his start making generic yakuza pictures and hit big with revenge thrillers.