‘Tokyo Sonata’: An Apt Illustration of the Japanese Society?

From the Lecture Series: The Rise of Modern Japan

By Mark J. RavinaUniversity of Texas at Austin

In some ways, the bursting of Japan’s economic bubble simply meant that the Japanese society was grappling with many of the same problems as the rest of the industrial and post-industrial world. First, capitalism generates astonishing wealth but also astonishing inequality. So how does a society provide a safety net that helps the neediest? That’s especially challenging in Japan.

Concept of inequality caused by capitalism
Capitalism generates great amounts of wealth while also generating inequality. (Image: Fran_kie/Shutterstock)

Marriages: The Lost Connection

It’s wonderful to marry for love but modern medicine affords us the gift of longer lives. And that means that many couples outlive their original connection. Making long marriages work is a challenge in any society. In the United States, the divorce rate for older couples doubled between 1990 and 2015.

An Asian elder couple laughing
With modern medicine, people who get married may have to live with their spouse for over half a century which is a challenge in any society, not just the Japanese society. (Image: Imtmphoto/Shutterstock)

In Japan, two generations of steady economic growth, social stability, and political stability delayed or attenuated those challenges. But since 1990, Japan has faced those common challenges with unique, concentrated intensity.

Tokyo Sonata

The film, Tokyo Sonata, treats the collapse of more prosperous families. It is a dark family drama from Kurosawa Kiyoshi, who made his career in crime dramas and horror thrillers. And he brought that mood to Tokyo Sonata. There’s no gore or extreme violence. Still, Kurosawa makes the collapse of an ordinary middle-class family seem not just sad but also terrifying.

The film opens with an ordinary white-collar manager, Sasaki Ryūhei, discovering that he’s going to be fired. His boss thanks him for establishing the company’s Chinese subsidiary. But then the boss asks: What are you going to do now that you can be replaced by cheaper Chinese workers? 

Ryūhei clears out his desk in a fury and goes home but doesn’t tell his family that he’s been fired. He pretends to go to work but spends his days in a public park, surrounded by other men in business suits. All of them are pretending to hold jobs while desperately searching for work and getting meals from a soup kitchen.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Rise of Modern JapanWatch it now, on Wondrium.

A Crumbling Family Structure

Ryūhei’s already-strained relationship with his wife and two sons begins to collapse. The elder son wants to join the US military. His parents oppose the idea, but the son insists that he’ll simply wait until he’s old enough to enlist without their approval. The younger son, Kenji, is a piano prodigy but his talent and passion make Ryūhei aware of his own misery. Ryūhei blocks his own son’s ambitions. At one point, he slaps Kenji, accidentally knocking him down the stairs, and giving him a concussion.

Ryūhei visits an employment agency but refuses jobs as a security guard and as a convenience store manager because he views them as beneath him. He finally gets an interview for a management job but when the interviewer asks, “What is your special skill; what would you bring to this company”, the question exposes Ryūhei’s existential void. He has no answer. 

A Surreal Turn

Kurosawa makes that interview so awful that you almost wish a crazed killer from one of Kurosawa’s earlier slasher films would burst in and kill Ryūhei just to end his complete humiliation. Desperate for work, Ryūhei finally takes a job cleaning bathrooms at a shopping mall. And he is still pretending to hold his old job. The film then takes an almost surreal turn. 

The wife, Megumi, is surprised by a burglar, who’s another unemployed white-collar guy like Ryūhei. The burglar kidnaps Megumi and seems ready to sexually assault her. But then he dissolves into self-pity and self-loathing. He’s a failure as a businessman, as a burglar, as a kidnapper, and even as a rapist.

A Film Too Dark

Megumi consoles him, assuring him that he is worthwhile, that he has value. The scene is both horrifying and absurd. Meanwhile, Ryūhei finds a duffel bag of cash stashed behind a toilet in the mall bathroom. He takes it but is struck by a car while walking home, and spends the night wandering Tokyo in a daze, injured and covered in garbage. 

The young Kenji is detained for trying to run away from home. And after that night of bizarre, traumatic episodes, the family meets up again at the house. They act as though nothing has happened, and they have dinner together.

The only one missing is the elder son Takashi, who has enlisted in the US military. But he’s grown disillusioned with military life, and he writes that he’s going to stay in “this country”—presumably Iraq—to fight with “the people”.

The film was too dark to be a big box office success. It barely made $250,000 in domestic box office receipts. But it was critically acclaimed in Japan and abroad, winning the Special Jury Prize at Cannes.

Tokyo Sonata: Both True and Surreal

People walking in a street
Though Japanese society technically faces a labor shortage, many aren’t willing to take jobs that they feel are beneath them. (Image: StreetVJ/Shutterstock)

The film is almost documentary-like. When Ryūhei turns down a job managing a convenience store, he demonstrates a real paradox of the Japanese labor market. Retailers are struggling with a shortage of workers and are pushing up the retirement age to retain people.

But older, traditional managers like Ryūhei find those jobs beneath them. They feel displaced if not discarded. So, if you go to a convenience store in Tokyo, you’ll likely find that most of the staff is South Asian or Southeast Asian. Japanese unemployment is under 3% and technically faces a labor shortage.

But there are thousands of men like Ryūhei who are still hoping to get their old-style jobs bad. So, Kurosawa’s film is both exactingly true and wildly surreal.

Common Questions about How ‘Tokyo Sonata’ Illustrates the Japanese Society

Q: How has modern medicine affected marriage?

Modern medicine has allowed us to live for much more years than humans usually did. Now, couples may have to stay together for over half a century, which seems much longer than usual and a very hard challenge to overcome.

Q: What is the film Tokyo Sonata about?

Tokyo Sonata follows the father of a family who loses his job and goes to the park every day so his family doesn’t find out until he tries to find a replacement job. The film is about the collapse of a middle-class family in Japanese society.

Q: How does the film Tokyo Sonata ring true in its illustration of the Japanese society?

The film addresses the fact that though there is a labor shortage in Japan, many traditional managers, such as the main character of the film, aren’t willing to work at jobs that they deem to be beneath them.

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