While he's perhaps best known for directing the original Pulse, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's new film, Tokyo Sonata, is an unexpected pleasure -- not only because it's a departure from the J-horror films that made his name, but because it's also a startlingly rich, funny and strong drama, without a hint of the supernatural or unearthly. That's not to say it's not exciting, or scary or startling, but rather to say that it concerns itself with normal, average (which is hardly normal, and rarely average) life as its main concern. Ryhuei (Teruyuki Kagawa) is a chief administrator in a medical-supplies company ... or, rather, he was; he's been downsized, his position outsourced. He can't bring himself to tell his wife, Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), and has even less an idea of what he'd say to his sons Takashi (Yu Koyangi) and Kenji (Kai Inowaki), so for a while he dresses for work, leaves in the morning and goes to the park. Or looks for new work that simply isn't there.

At heart, Tokyo Sonata is about the difficulty of necessary conversations, and the necessity of difficult conversations. Ryhuei isn't the only person not talking about what's really going on; Megumi's deeply unhappy in her life, for reasons she can't even explain to herself; Takashi is thinking about embarking on a bold, if ill-advised, adventure; Kenji wants to study the piano, and does so in secret after his father's dismissal of the idea. Watching some films, you think that the plot's complications and character's stresses could be cleared up in one simple conversation ... and watching other, better films, you think that the plot's complications and character's stresses could be cleared up in one simple conversation and think of all the times that's been the case in your own life and how you may have failed to do so at the time, too.
It may seem incongruous for a filmmaker best known for his horror efforts to give us a drama as humane -- and funny -- as Toyko Sonata; then again, horror and humor are both exercises in tension, and Kurosawa demonstrates his understanding of that with true skill here. Ryhui's funny, occasionally, in his desperation -- Kagawa's walk as the character is a thing of comedic wonder in and of itself -- but he's never just a joke, either. We feel for him. And while it's a part that could descend into caricature, the harried salary-man who doesn't draw a salary anymore, that never happens, nor do the other unhappy family member become just their plotlines. Max Mannix, Kurosawa and Sachiko Tanaka all receive screenplay credit, but the end result of the collaboration speaks with a single voice.

That's probably because of Kurosawa's direction, which is both stately and active; there are long, careful scenes in Tokyo Sonata, to be sure, but there are also quick cuts and surprises and elegant, engaging camera work. Kurosawa creates the world these characters live in -- their friends and neighbors, their successes and problems, minor defeats and small victories. It's a cliché truth that every unhappy family is unhappy in their own way, and yet the Sasakis are unhappy in a way we can all sympathize with, at least in some fashion.

And we step outside of the family, too; Haruka Igawa plays a dedicated piano teacher; Kanji Tsuda is a fellow failure who offers Kagawa a model to emulate and then a cautionary note; Koji Yakusho is a thief who gives more than he takes, and all their work is excellent. It would be understandable if, at the end of Tokyo Sonata, everything turned out okay; when it does, and doesn't, you feel as if you haven't seen a movie but lived life, at least for a while, with all of the ugly and scary and wonderful and amazing things that involves. Tokyo Sonata's been one of the most unexpected surprises of the Un Certain Regard selection at Cannes this year, and one of the most delightful.