Kiyoshi Kurosawa has long been filed under “horror director,” though his take on the genre is anything but standard. The villain of “Cure,” his deeply creepy 1997 breakout film, is not a maniac with a sharp-edged weapon but a blank-faced drifter who hypnotizes his victims into killing themselves.
Kurosawa sees evil not as an outside force but integral to the strange, vaguely menacing nature of our universe. Given the right conditions — a weakening of the psychic immune system in “Cure” or a break in the wall between the living and dead in “Kairo (Pulse),” (2001) — we can all become vulnerable to its invasion. Also, he builds his scares from mundane materials — a flicking light, puddling water or red tape on a door.
Genre cinema, however, is defined by formulas that place limits on even the most creative. Kurosawa danced in his chains better than most, but his recent horror outings have been unfocused and uninspired, even verging on the farcical.
In his newest film, “Tokyo Sonata,” Kurosawa has abandoned horror for that staple of Japanese cinema — the family drama — and returned to form, brilliantly. Screened in the En Certain Regard section at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Tokyo Sonata” won the Jury Prize, the only Japanese film to leave the festival with an award this year.
Based on an original screenplay by Australian Max Mannix that Kurosawa and scriptwriter Sachiko Tanaka polished, “Tokyo Sonata” tells a typical story of these economically uncertain times: A middle-age salaryman, Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa), loses his job, but doesn’t tell his wife, Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) or two sons — sixth-grader Kenta (Kai Inowaki) and college student Taka (Yu Koyanagi).
Instead, he tries to keep up appearances, leaving home each morning dressed in a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase, but spending his days searching fruitlessly for work, killing time in a public library or lining up for a free lunch with the homeless and the other unemployed.
This is similar to the set-up of Toshiaki Toyoda’s “Kuchu Teien (Hanging Garden),” a 2005 film in which Koizumi also starred. But where Toyoda’s film about familial masks had a black comic tone, Kurosawa’s is almost entirely straight- faced — and scary.
The scares come not from ghosts advancing toward fear-paralyzed victims but from the feelings of grim helplessness and hopelessness that begin to grip Sasaki as his life slowly, inexorably circles the drain. Though he desperately tries to hide the shame of being unemployed, his little poses and ruses are relentlessly stripped bare by a searching glance, a mocking request or a disastrous chance encounter. He is living a nightmare — and since it’s largely of his own making, he can’t easily escape it.
His one companion in misery is a former high-school classmate, Kurosu (Kanji Tsuda), who has also joined the ranks of the jobless, but has the confident, swaggering air of a survivor. Sasaki clings to him as to a lifeline — but Kurosu is also teetering on the edge.
Megumi sees the change in her husband — she even catches him sneaking home early the day he is fired — but doesn’t voice her suspicions. The lines of communication between her and Sasaki are vanishingly thin — about the only time they occupy the same psychic space is the evening meal, which Sasaki chomps down with barely a word. Still, she would rather keep up the illusion of normality than risk a confrontation and an explosion.
The two boys are less restrained. When Kenta asks his parents if he can study piano and is brusquely refused by his father (for reasons he can’t disclose), he takes lessons anyway, paying for them with his lunch money, while telling no one. When Taka tires of his aimless existence, which includes an arubaito (part-time job) handing out tissue packs on street corners — he decides to join the U.S. Army over Sasaki’s strenuous objections.
So far so typical: Traditionalist fathers in Japanese family dramas have been watching their authority slip away for decades now. But rather than proceed to the expected denouement — Sasaki sees the error of his ways, repents, reconciles, etc. — the film takes unexpected turns, some violent, some deadly, some bizarre, that throw all the principals off their assigned tracks. In short, “Tokyo Sonata” becomes a Kurosawa film, in which everyday reality is upended, to better reveal the baseline humanity of the characters.
This is a risky narrative strategy, as Kurosawa has already proved in previous, less successful films, but instead of devolving into an artificial exercise in irony or a wacky excursion into Surrealism, the film reaches another, higher level, something like a near-death experience that changes everything, even if a sober explanation of it sounds absurd.
Teruyuki Kagawa, a veteran of many man-at-the-end-of-his-tether roles, does his familiar sweaty, shifty-eyed turn as Sasaki, but with an unusual intensity, as if his character is being not just humiliated, but physically hunted. As Megumi, Koizumi adds layers of dark complexity to that generic character — the put-on housewife. She is tough and shrewd — little gets by that appraising glance — but she is also capable of surprising acts of courage, tolerance and passion. She holds the family — as well as Kurosawa’s best film in years — triumphantly together.