Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Tokyo Sonata
Over the past decade or so, Kiyoshi Kurosawa has established himself as one of the most interesting genre directors in world cinema. The Japanese writer-director was born in Kobe in 1955, and first made 8mm shorts while studying Sociology at Rikko University. He began directing features in the early 1980s, working on direct-to-video titles, including yakuza movies, and studied under the tutelage of directors Shinji Somai and Kazuhiko Hasegawa. He then had minor successes with films like the college-set drama The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl (1985) and the blackly comic thriller Guard from the Underground (1992). In 1992, he was invited to bring his script for Charisma to the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab. Kurosawa first made an impression internationally in 1997 with his breakout festival hit Cure, a sinister serial killer thriller, and during a subsequent prolific period followed it up with a number of other successful thrillers and J-horror films, such as Charisma (1999), Séance (2000), and Pulse (2001). These movies consolidated Kurosawa’s reputation as a significant talent, and though the director’s pace has slowed somewhat since – he has made four features in the last five years – he has continued to make films in his trademark style, dealing with his recurrent themes, such as isolation and identity.
Kurosawa’s latest film, Tokyo Sonata, however, sees him completely change gears as he switches from thrillers and horror films to an intimate family drama set in contemporary Japan. The film’s familial patriarch, Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa), loses his job early on in the movie, and we then see the consequences of his inability to tell this to his wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), grown-up son Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) and younger son Kenji (Kai Inowaki). The film follows each character’s search for personal and collective identity in the midst of this communication breakdown, and Kurosawa’s portrait of the family in decline begins as an understated drama and then slowly unravels. In Tokyo Sonata, Kurosawa elicits a number of great performances (from Kagawa, Koizumi and Kurosawa regular Koji Yakushi, in a choice smaller role), and manages to balance surprising humor with its more poignant moments, while also making its late shift into wild, heady allegory both resonant and highly effective. Though Kurosawa proved himself as a genre director, this fine film suggest that his talents are much greater and more diverse.
Filmmaker spoke to Kurosawa about his new cinematic direction, his ongoing collaboration with Koji Yakusho, and the monster movies of his childhood.
Filmmaker: What was your original idea for the film?
Kurosawa: I’d made several films that dealt with families before, but they had always been about broken families and I’d always been interested in doing some film about an ordinary nuclear before it’s about to start breaking up, so that was one of the impetuses for me taking on this film.
Filmmaker: There’s been a lot of talk about how different this is to your previous films. Why did you take this different direction, and how long had you been thinking about doing that?
Kurosawa: I’d made various styles of films in my career, but I think I’ve had a string of films in recent years that labeled me as a horror filmmaker. I don’t mind the horror genre at all – in fact, I like it – but I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a horror filmmaker, so I’d been itching to do something very different and that’s part of the reason why I chose to do a family drama. In so doing, I wanted to squeeze in lots of different thoughts and details from my observations of living in Japan everyday and try to invest the film with a lot of the different ordinary things that I’m not able to do in some of the genre films I’ve done before.
Filmmaker: Were you daunted by this change in direction, not only because of the challenge of doing something different but because of anticipating the fans’ reaction to this new kind of film?
Kurosawa: I wasn’t that daunted, and I think the reason why is because even though the story was new, many of the cast and crew that I was working with were familiar to me, even though there were some new people too. The mode of filmmaking, the budget, and the days of shooting were comparable to what I’d done in the past, so I wasn’t that concerned. But because I seem to have a certain segment of fans that are very much appreciative of my horror films, I was concerned that some of them probably wouldn’t like this film.
Filmmaker: What kind of overlap do you see between this film and your work beforehand? And how different was the experience of writing and directing in compared with previous films?
Kurosawa: I think in the horror genre you’re always thinking about how you’re going to incite fear in the audience, but with something like Tokyo Sonata, I didn’t have to worry about a certain emotional reaction that I had to draw out of the audience. I could shoot something that felt right and them worry about the emotional aspect later. In terms of the similarities between the earlier films and this one, they’re all dramas that are set in modern Tokyo in which several characters suffer from isolation and pressure from society and the concern about how they will be able to find liberation from that.
Filmmaker: I find it interesting that this film, which is so particularly Japanese, has suddenly acquired a universal resonance in the wake of the global financial crisis.
Kurosawa: I wasn’t sure when I first made Tokyo Sonata how relevant it would be to the rest of the world. When I was making it, I wasn’t aware how unstable the economy was going to be; I certainly didn’t predict it. We shot the film over a year ago. Even though the story is about a father who is laid off, I wasn’t concerned about taking up the social problem of unemployment, rather I was interested in the psychology of this man who couldn’t tell his family about the fact that he lost his job and the fact that he had to keep it a secret. I’m not sure how distinctively Japanese that is or how universal that is, but judging from how much it seems to resonating with audiences around the world, perhaps there is something to the idea that the inability for the father to do so is something that is universal around the the world too.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask you about your influences on this film, and particularly Laurent Cantet’s Time Out, which is also about a man who can bring himself to reveal he’s been laid off.
Kurosawa: First of all, I haven’t seen Time Out, but when I was in France I was told about the film by several people and asked if I had seen it. I understand that it was probably the one that is based on the true story [of Jean-Claude Romand], a father [who] had lied about losing his job and kept that secret for several years and ended up killing his family. In terms of influences, this is a film that doesn’t belong to any genre so there were no films that I watched in advance to model it after, receive any influence or get any ideas. However, one genre that I was aware of is the “home drama,” which is a very distinctive Japanese genre that’s found primarily on TV in which you’ll have a family sitting around a dinner and they’ll often fight, laugh, make up – all kinds of different dramas taking place right at the dinner table – and that’s a certain format that I was conscious of when I was making the film.
Filmmaker: There’s a very rich and sometimes surprising sense of humor in the film. Laughs are usually out of place in horror or sci-fi films, so what it was it like having that greater freedom to be funny?
Kurosawa: I wasn’t intending for the film to be a comedy really, but it seems that certain scenes have drawn some laughs from the audience and I think it’s because many of the characters are very, very preoccupied with something before them and have extreme tunnel vision. When you look at it from the outside, objectively, there’s something comical about it and I think that’s where much of the comedy comes from.
Filmmaker: As this is not a genre film, music plays a somewhat different role in Tokyo Sonata. How involved were you in working with the composer and drawing out the more emotional aspects of the film with the score?
Kurosawa: The composer was a man by the name of [Kazumasa] Hashimoto, and I hadn’t worked with him before and he hadn’t done any composing for film before. That was actually an intention of mine, to work with somebody who hadn’t done any films yet. I wanted to use music in a very different way than I typically do with horror films. With horror films, we first edit the film and then the composer will take a look at it and we will talk about adding scary music here, quiet music there, whatever’s appropriate to each scene. With this film, I showed the composer the film and then I asked him to come up with music of any length, without regard for where it might fit in the actual film. The only condition was that he let me pick and choose the ones I wanted to use wherever I wanted in the film. So that was a very different mode of working with a composer this time.
Filmmaker: I believe in the first version of the script, there was more focus on the male members of the family, but that you made the mother a much more significant and well-rounded character.
Kurosawa: What I found very difficult is the process of expanding the wife into one of the primary characters in the film and [discovering] how she will confront her own dramas and conflicts in the film. In Japan, there are many housewives and also many people who work outside and as I struggled to work out how to expand that character, I was able to get helpful contributions from our other co-screenwriter, Sachiko Tanaka. I’m not sure how reflective the character is of today’s Japanese woman, but I can safely say that once the burglar appears, and in all the ensuing scenes, it kind of moves into fantasy. Up until then, we’re conscious of her role as a mother and a wife, but after that sequence, I think she moves past that point and into a more universal question of her own identity – “Who am I?” – as she ends up in a more philosophical place. I think she ends up representing the root of the question of where people see themselves in a family, and how they see themselves as an individual too.
Filmmaker: The part of the film which is fantastical also has heavily allegorical aspects. How important is allegory, which you’ve used in your genre films quite a bit, in your cinematic vocabulary?
Kurosawa: After the burglar shows up, as you mentioned, the film moves from reality to more a fantasy realm, and that was intentional on my part. For me, allegory and fantasy are devices for me to be able to give a certain amount of hope to the audience. I believe that depicting reality alone doesn’t always take us to that place, and so while I believe that film is an art form that captures reality, I believe that sometimes you have to use these devices to be able to depict and capture that small inkling of hope that we need to see in the film.
Filmmaker: Koji Yakusho makes a great appearance in the latter stages of the film. Can you tell me about your continuing professional relationship with him and his importance to your work?
Kurosawa: First of all, we’ve obviously worked on many films together, and he happens to be the exact same age as me so there’s a certain trust that we have, we’re a good fit, and we have a lot of fun making films together too. Koji Yakusho was initially too busy to work on the film so we weren’t expecting to cast him at all. But as we were getting close to the shooting date and we were finishing up the casting, he sent me an email saying, “I have three days to spare. Is there a role for me?” The only role really available at the moment was the burglar. I said, “Is this character OK for you?” He said, “My pleasure,” and that’s how he got into the film.
Filmmaker: After the success of this film, do you plan to make more adventurous films like this or primarily return to genre filmmaking?
Kurosawa: I have no idea what I’ll be able to do in the future, but I certainly want the freedom to be able to make different types of films, tackle new themes and different genres, and I would say that the success if Tokyo Sonata definitely motivates me to go in that direction too.
Filmmaker: What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Kurosawa: My advice is just to make films. With the quality that’s possible with video technology today, you can go out with a camera and use your friends and make a film tomorrow if you want, and at that point you can call yourself a filmmaker.
Filmmaker: Will the current interest in documentaries last, or is it just a fad?
Kurosawa: I think that the curiosity that people have today about what is happening in the world is not going to wane. Documentaries that are able to accurately show what is happening in the world are going to be powerful and effective ways to do that, so I think they will continue to develop in their popularity. At the same time, documentary is an easy medium in which to lie, and so I think that we are going to have to have keen eyes to discern the truth in the face of wrong information, manipulation and various kinds of political motives that go into filmmaking.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Kurosawa: It’s one of two different monster films that I watched a lot in my childhood. I can’t remember which one was the first. One of them is Mothra, a Japanese monster film, and the other is a British monster film that was inspired by Japanese monster films from the time like Godzilla. I think the title is Gorgo.
Filmmaker: What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen, or had to do yourself, during your time in the film industry?
Kurosawa: That’s a hard question… You know, everything was strange when I first entered the industry, and now nothing seems strange at all. But one thing that continues to baffle me is the way we shoot films out of sequence, the way we shoot night scenes in the morning and shooting morning scenes later in the evening. And then all these different shots are pieced together and when we see them there’s a very coherent, linear arc to it. That’s something that always feel so odd to me, and yet very amazing.