The ending of a film doesn't need a plot twist or a gruesome act of violence to be surprising (although films that end with gruesomely violent plot twists tend to be my kind of alright). Like losing track of the time only to see the sunrise when you thought it was barely midnight, sometimes the most natural things in the world can catch you off-guard and knock you flat on your ass. some endings - such as that of The Usual Suspects - provide new information that redefines the entire film, whereas the final moments of Tokyo Sonata don't reveal anything so much as they clarify and cohere, collecting divergent strands and themes together in a knot that refuses to be unraveled. Some films leave you with a punch in the gut - Tokyo Sonata ends by finally allowing you to exhale. It's not perfect, but things this beautiful rarely are.
It's an ending that can't really be spoiled in the traditional sense, and one that can be enjoyed even without the benefit of context. Having said that, this is where I recommend that all ye who haven't seen Tokyo Sonata abandon this post and go see Tokyo Sonata. Call me - we can even watch it together. I'll be the guy sitting next to you going "Dude, the end of this movie is soooo awesome" every five minutes. It'll be great. SPOILER ALERT NOW IN FULL EFFECT.
Sorry for the flowery bullshit, but it's tough to describe the final moments of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's domestic horror film without getting a bit sentimental. A purely literal description would read: "Young boy plays the piano. He plays it well," but that doesn't quite capture the mellifluous and almost traumatic force of Tokyo Sonata's last scene. For those who need a refresher, Kurosawa (no relation to KUROSAWA) has shown us a family in quiet crisis. The Sasakis are a family suffering from and contributing to a motorized urban malaise - they're trapped and trapped and then trapped again. The Tokyo cityscape offers no escape from the roles and loops into which it submits its denizens, but more worrying for the Sasakis than the lack of exits is that - like a dream - they can't remember how they wound up in this post-millennial funk to begin with. Things simply are, and the ostensibly loving family unit simply serves to reinforce the depths of their individual alienations. It all kinda sounds like American Beauty, but Alan Ball could never conceive of characters so mortally fractured - domestic horror is often at its most relatable and terrifying when its heroes haven't realized they're broken, and though Kurosawa is known for his abstract supernatural chillers, the implacably human Tokyo Sonata is his most frightening film.
Patriarch / salaryman Ryuhei Sasaki (the always wonderful Teruyuki Kagawa) has lost his job, and cannot bring himself to tell his fractured family, instead electing to feign going to work and eventually finding work as a mall janitor. Wife Megumi has been amicably kidnapped by Koji Yakusho, elder son Takashi has joined the American forces in Iraq, and teenaged Kenji wants to develop his burgeoning affinity for the piano despite his father's obvious but unspoken (and occasionally violent) wishes to the contrary. The coda transpires four months after the Sasakis (save for Takashi) separately and wordlessly return home following the climactic night during which their delicate defense mechanisms collapsed into each other in an unlikely and supra-realist series of chance encounters. Father, Mother, and youngest son gather at the kitchen table for a home-cooked meal like any other, and Kurosawa feigns as if he's going to leave them sitting there, suffocating under the weight of their own inexplicable circumstances.
It seems as if Kurosawa's story has reached its end. There's no plot development or conversational exchange that could hope to resolve or satisfy this complex of metaphysical strife - the film isn't foolish or arrogant enough to try and solve domestic disenfranchisement. But if Kurosawa left us there it would be cruel to both the characters and to the audience, a cynical move at the end of a particularly compelling slog. So instead he leaves us with a young boy (Kenji) playing the piano - playing it very well. The only plot-related information the epilogue provides is that Ryuhei (now calmly reconciled to his janitorial gig) and his wife are still together, and that the former has come to terms with Kenji's piano lessons as a justifiable and encouraging expense. Kenji is auditioning for a position in a musical school, his acceptance to which would put him on a path towards great things.
Several movies - most memorably recent ones like Ocean's Eleven and The Game - have used Claude Debussy's eternal Claire de Lune to great effect, but as far as its use in film is concerned, Tokyo Sonata owns it now. Kenji surveys the room as he plays the first few notes, eyeing the judges with a reserved confidence. He knows what he's about to lay down, and what it could mean. The audience isn't privy to the boy's talent, and from Kurosawa's static composition - slightly raised and discretely proud - we experience the shocking perfection of Kenji's performance alongside everyone else in the chamber. Kurosawa then cuts to a dirty two-shot of Kenji's parents, and we'd laugh at Ryuhei's shell-shocked expression if we weren't so speechless, ourselves.
And then I'd argue that Kurosawa missteps. He shows us Kenji's piano teacher entering the chamber, which is contextually satisfying but ultimately distracting from the focused power of the moment. He then cuts back to Kenji, this time at a much nearer distance to the performer. It's a quibble even amongst quibbles, but the diffident wide shot with which the scene begins does such a devastating job of expressing the sublimely surprising beauty of Kenji's playing, and methinks that sticking with only that casual perspective would make the moment that much more paralyzing. But the scene's true joy might be when Kurosawa then returns to Kenji's parents, this time in a closer two-shot in which Ryuhei's parted lips and heavy sighs instantly and with tremendous grace send this urban trail of tears careening in a new, urgently hopeful direction. As Kenji finishes playing and the chamber falls prey to a quiet hush, Ryuhei approaches his son and strokes the back of his head. It's a devastating moment.
The mysterious and unknowable quality of Tokyo Sonata's final moments are what imbue them with their indelible power and optimism. You can posit that Kurosawa is suggesting that art can rescue people from practical terrors, or that Kenji's bright future has come to bind the Sasaki's despite their rifts, and you'd probably be right on both counts. But to come to a single or finite conclusion is to deny the entire film its affirming insistence upon being presentational rather than explicit. Kurosawa has dragged us through the ringer, forcing us to balk in horror at the depths to which the Sasakis plunge in their quests for identity and greater interpersonal meaning. The film has erred in its most ostensibly dramatic moments - the subplot about Megumi's abduction feels ripped from another movie entirely, too spot-on and convenient, and thus undercutting the convincing rhythms in which the film fluidly ebbs along. But the finale almost feels as if it's an apology for such missteps. It's as if Kurosawa is saying that he - much like his characters - allowed things to get away from himself and a touch out of hand, but that the inexplicable and undeniably arresting power of Kenji's playing will provide the entire experience clarity. The ending doesn't erase what's come before it so much as it layers the proceedings with a hugely sentimental veneer of irreducible significance.
A sonata literally means "to be played" rather than a cantata, which means "to be sung" (thanks, Wikipedia). American Beauty is a cantata. The mantra of Alan Ball's Oscar winner is that "There's so much beauty in the world." Wes Bentley's tortured character - lips quivering - tells us so with enviable conviction. It's a film that I love and admire for its aesthetic control and thematic focus, but one that undeniably talks at its viewers. But Kenji plays the Claire de Lune and it's unbelievably powerful because we feel the maddening chaos of the previous two hours submitting to a beauty that would be worthless if it could be quantified or bottled. If the moment were allowed to feel aware of its own grace, it would lose all meaning. It's one of the most covertly emotional endings in all of cinema because Kurosawa captures it in a fashion that's almost tyrannically opaque, but also ordinary in a way you've feared the film has forgotten how to be. The Sasakis are in for a tough go of things after the credits steal them from us, but for some extraordinarily unknowable reason they're in it together.
I think that's about as happy as endings get.
For anyone who wants to prepare themselves for future Greatest Endings post, these are some of the films I hope to cover:
- The Son
- Silent Light
- Aguirre: The Wrath of God
- The Conformist
- The Lovers
- F For Fake
- Children of Men / The Mist
- Paths of Glory
- Bigger Than Life
- In The Realm of the Senses