The Family Circus 

Tokyo Sonata and Sunshine Cleaning show how to deal with the recession.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is the most interesting filmmaker in Japan. The 53-year-old native of Kobe, director of some 32 movies since 1975 and screenwriter of most of those, basked in the adulation with a personal appearance two weeks ago at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, but his star had been rising for quite awhile. For this critic, it was Séance, Kurosawa's definitively creepy 2000 remake of the old shocker Séance on a Wet Afternoon, that sealed the deal.

Since then Kurosawa has graduated from the youth-market notoriety of his hugely imitated J-horror hits Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001). Horror was just another genre for him to master. His mature period is marked by more than scream cues and eerie silences. The modern characters in Doppelgänger and Bright Future have ghosts to deal with, to be sure, but theirs is more of a lingering illness of the soul — a restrained, sublimated expression of contemporary urban angst that only rarely, almost accidentally, bursts onto the surface because it can't be held back any longer. The cinema of Kurosawa doesn't necessarily try to treat that sickness, it only sheds some light on it. At least until his masterpiece, Tokyo Sonata.

Middle-aged office worker Ryuhei Sasaki (played by Teruyuki Kagawa) loses his job — the company is outsourcing its production to Dalian, China, where one worker can do the work of two Japanese. Before he can be fired, Ryuhei abruptly cleans out his desk and comes to rest on the sidewalk outside. It will take a bit longer to sort out his feelings. Instead of notifying his wife, Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), and their two sons at dinner in their modest home in the city, the newly minted no-salary-man embarks on an elaborate charade, suiting up every morning and marching to "work," then lingering around town, often visiting a local "unemployed soup kitchen," until it's time to go home.

One reason Sasaki-san doesn't confide in his family is ironically the exact reason why he should — they're all tragically isolated from each other. Mealtimes pass without a word spoken. Housewife Megumi hovers around her husband, helpfully inquiring about his increasingly gloomy mood, but she's too timid to press him on it. Meanwhile, loneliness is killing her. At one point she collapses on the living room sofa and calls out to no one in particular, "Somebody please help me up!" Nobody responds. The two sons are similarly parched. Older son Takashi (Yu Koyanagi), tired of his nowhere job as a nightclub crowd-puller, decides to join the US military, possibly to fight in Iraq. Younger son Kenji (Kai Inowaki), a sensitive but neglected preteen, channels his loneliness into music by using his school lunch money to take piano lessons. It turns out that Kenji's artistic talent, initially violently dismissed by his frustrated father, is the lifeline the family has been yearning for. But first they need to suffer.

Things come to a head for Ryuhei when, running short of cash, he swallows his pride and takes a job as a maintenance man at a nearby shopping mall. Sad-sack actor Kagawa, also currently on Bay Area screens in Tokyo!, pulls a heartbreaking face — a combination of shame, dread, humility, and naked hunger for approval — when he and a squad of similarly disgraced former office workers are obliged to change out of their business clothes and into the mall's janitor uniforms in the hallway, like naughty schoolboys. The former engineer thus begins his new career, swabbing toilets and mopping up little kids' spilled sodas.

Tokyo Sonata, a 2008 Japan-Netherlands-Hong Kong co-production, naturally was made before the current recession arrived, but its bittersweet story of tough breaks leading to an offhand kind of redemption fits in well with other "recession movies" such as Frozen River, The Wrestler, Hirokazu Koreeda's abandoned-kids weeper Nobody Knows, as well as the newly released Sunshine Cleaning (see below). In a sense, Kurosawa's people — haunted twentysomethings, revenge-crazy gangsters, doomed ecologists, preoccupied inventors, and the stunted Sasaki family — have always lived in a recession, an emotional recession from which there is only temporary escape. Japan's "lost decade" stretched out longer than ten years; America's troubles may just be starting. There's a lesson in Tokyo Story. The lesson has to do with kindness and human interaction. That may surprise Kurosawa's J-horror fans, but the director has been working these themes all along.

New directions in chick flicks: dried arterial blood sprays, maggots, and heart tugs. That's the situation for Sunshine Cleaning's Lorkowski sisters, Rose (Amy Adams) and Norah (Emily Blunt), a pair of down-on-their-luck Albuquerque women who go into the postmortem crime-scene cleanup business when nothing else seems to be working for them. It's a comedy.

We can imagine the producers sitting around figuring out how to sell this one. It's got lovable female losers, a precocious but troubled little kid (single-mom Rose's son Oscar, played by Jason Spevack), a beat-up van they all ride around in, and Alan Arkin as the sisters' eccentric (what else?) dad. Hmmm. Everybody liked Little Miss Sunshine — why not call this one Sunshine Cleaning? Surprisingly, director Christine Jeffs (she helmed Gwyneth Paltrow's Sylvia Plath bio, Sylvia) and fresh-out-of-the-box screenwriter Megan Holley pick up these scattered, slightly used remnants and make a believable, if a trifle hackneyed, portrait of lower-middle-class American life out of them, with major input from the two actors.

Adams we all know about. In Junebug, Charlie Wilson's War, and especially in last year's nun-fest Doubt, her performances plumbed depths of sincerity. She has a kind demeanor and knows how to use it sparingly. Her Rose Lorkowski has something to prove to everyone, including herself. Blunt's Norah is the showboat role. It's one thing to play stupid, but it's much harder to play defiant, needy, wounded, childish, and basically well meaning at the same time — that's what Norah is all about. With her extra-heavy eye makeup and her guilty memories of their late mother, Norah is a tricky piece of work, but Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada, The Jane Austen Book Club, Charlie Wilson's War with Adams) hits it out of the ballpark — and drives in Arkin, who was already on third with a triple.


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