Nuclear family, revisited: Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Tokyo Sonata" is good medicine for trying times.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa and a Cinema of Disaster

Matt Sussman March 11, 2009

The wind is always blowing in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films. Like the torrential rain of so many horror films that is only a road-sign for the creepy old house up ahead, the gusts that whip and toss Kurosawa’s characters are the sighs of a world in flux. Though his dizzyingly prolific filmography includes a wide cross section of genres—police procedural, family melodrama, yakuza revenge tale, supernatural thriller—the central drama of most Kurosawa films can be boiled down this: the world is changing—or has changed—and the measure of each character is how successfully or unsuccessfully they can adjust to the new parameters unfolding before them.

It is a simple conflict, in a way, but the choices and outcomes that face Kurosawa’s characters—however melodramatic or fantastic—are no less resonant with our own current political and economic climate of crisis. The choice of Kurosawa as the focus of a special retrospective by the S.F. International Asian American Film Festival, opening Thursday, is a timely one. Kurosawa is a good director to watch at this moment when the world feels as if it is on the edge of collapse. His is often a cinema of disaster: characters face the worst, or are living in its aftermath. Like the audience, they are provided with no easy answers. But watching them shakily reorient their moral bearings makes for fascinating, if not always exemplary, viewing.

The apocalypse looms large in the loose trilogy of existential horror films—*Cure* (1997), Charisma (1999), and Pulse (2001)—that initially put Kurosawa on the map for Western viewers. In Cure, Detective Takabe (played by Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho) arrives at true self-knowledge at a price: He becomes the next agent in the viral chain of self-actualization-through-murder he was initially trying to stop. In Charisma, Yabuike (again, played by Yakusho) winds up making good on the kidnapper’s request at the beginning of the film to "restore the rules of the world." Realizing that either saving the special, potentially poisonous tree or the rest of the forest is a false choice (but a nice metaphor), Yabuike lets nature takes its course, as it were. At the film’s end, we see the city in flames. In Pulse, which is one of the films featured in the retrospective, the dead return via dial-up modems, but as one character states, the other side is "right now, forever." The difference between a ghost and a depressed shut-in is simply a matter of degree, and a soulless, depopulated world is but one outcome of mass-mediated existence.

Kurosawa has said in interviews that, despite the atmosphere of gloom and dread that permeates these films, the shifts occurring within them are not necessarily for the worst. In License to Live (1998), which also gets retrospective treatment, a twentysomething man wakes up from a coma and attempts to reconnect with the family that had slowly drifted apart over the course of his absence. "The world wont be quite as you remember it," warns his doctor—but in Yutaka’s case that may be for the best. Rather than attempt to recover some irretrievable past, Yutaka treats his lot as a chance to re-make his splintered family, in possibly a better-off incarnation than before.

It is a theme taken up again in Kurosawa’s latest film, Tokyo Sonata, which is also his strongest in quite some time. A darkly comic update on Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa’s pillow-shot portraits of the Japanese nuclear family, Tokyo Sonata trades the unsettled spirits of his earlier films for the shade-like salary men and disaffected youth left in the wake of the bubble economy’s collapse. The wind blows sharply as each member of the Sasaki clan slowly spins off into their own private eddies of secret joy and stifled pain until, inevitably and spectacularly, they crash back into each other’s orbit—and, even more spectacularly, into a certain grace. It is good medicine for these trying times.

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