Director Kurosawa Kiyoshi has built a reputation for himself in the last decade or so as a director of horror movies - indeed, one of the directors of horror movies, a veritable patriarch of the contemporary J-horror film. Thus, it's at least a touch surprising that his latest movie, Tokyo Sonata, sees him working in a completely different mode: it's a lightly satiric drama about economic hardship in a global economy. So maybe it is a horror movie after all, but one whose terrors are mostly existential.

Tokyo Sonata centers around the travails of the Sasaki family, beginning with the day that father Ryuhei (Kagawa Teruyuki) is laid off from his white collar position in favor of cheaper Chinese labor. Embarrassed to be thus reduced to a common, useless member of the unemployed, Ryuhei hides his misfortune from the rest of his family, turning into a petty domestic tyrant, and making the other Sasakis' lives absolute hell. His wife Megumi (Koizumi Kyoko) deals with this in the same quietly seething matter that she's dealt with all her married life, but things start to get really unpleasant when Ryuhei starts to impose his arbitrary will upon their two boys. The elder, Takashi (Koyanagi Yu), sets his mind on fleeing Tokyo by joining the American military under a newly-enacted treaty between Japan and the U.S. while the younger, Kenji (Kai Inowaki), takes out his frustrations on his gormless teacher (Kojima Kazuya) and rebels against his parents' authority in the sneakiest way he can imagine: using his lunch money to pay for piano lessons, something his father is horribly opposed to for reasons that are never even hinted at. This is all, by the way, mostly just the set-up to things that happen later on, which I will allow to go unmentioned; not because the film relies in any great way on narrative surprises, but because if I start to relate everything that happens to the Sasakis, you will probably get the idea that Tokyo Sonata is plottier than is actually the case.

To an American viewer, the most immediately noteworthy thing about the film is how strangely it has been put together. Befitting its title, it has roughly the structure of a sonata, rather than a typical Hollywood three-act or four-act format, and this means that the film has fast and slow passages, feeling altogether wonky in a world where movies are usually either quick-moving or deliberate, but rarely both of them. Too, there aren't very many films that mix sober drama with wry humor in one and the same moment, so that it's never completely clear whether we're meant to laugh or not at something that may be funny or may be very tragic.

I don't see this as being some kind of cunning plot by Kurosawa to keep us off-kilter; I think he's trying to honestly reflect the fact that sometimes life is horrible and funny at the same time. For without a doubt, Tokyo Sonata is meant to be a reflection of real life, albeit a reflection colored with no mean amount of poetic realism. And allegory. My oh my, is there a lot of allegory to be found here, in what is clearly a story about Japan's Position Early In The Third Millennium. As much as anything else, the film's story is a case study in what happens when masculine financial authority is destabilised, or if you prefer, about the pegs getting knocked out from under a patriarchal leader. That the Sasaki clan is a metaphorical stand-in for Japanese culture as a whole (threatened by the indiscriminate rampages of Chinese Maoist capitalism; seduced and humiliated by the American military; discouraged from personal expression) is obvious to the point of redundancy; really, the film wears some of its allegorical colors a bit too brightly for my taste, especially in the case of Ryuhei and Takashi.

That might actually be the single largest flaw with Tokyo Sonata: it's quite precious and overdetermined in many ways. Kurosawa, lest we forget, is not used to making social dramedies, but visually assaulting horror pictures; the skill set required by one is practically the opposite of the skill set required by the other. When things in his new movie would be best-served by a light, even invisible authorial hand, the screenplay (which Kurosawa co-wrote with Tanaka Sachiko) invariably goes for the anvilicious and obvious. It is not a bad movie at all, nor is it graceful, and the further it drifts into outright magical realism - and the back half of the movie is nearly all magical realism - the more that Kurosawa's approach seems to hurt the material.

But here I am, complaining non-stop about a movie that, if it's not an earth-shattering work, still is one of the better things out there right now! For starters, it's pretty well-acted, right across the board, with special notice going to Kagawa and Kai: the former for hitting the incredibly deft balancing act inherent in the screenplay of making Ryuhei an incompetent sad-sack with a truly threatening edge, but still allowing us to know his private shame enough that he's still sympathetic, and the latter for taking the most mysterious figure in the screenplay (until Megumi, at the end) and making him seem real and explicable.

Also, though I may rag on Kurosawa for not stressing the right elements of the movie in the right order, I'd be a damned liar if I didn't give him credit for being a better-than-normal visual filmmaker; though perhaps some of that has to do with cinematographer Ashizawa Akiko. Either way, Tokyo Sonata is blessed with a lovely, high-grain aesthetic that gives the movie a worn-out feeling, neatly mirroring the world-weariness that each of the Sasakis feel in some measure or another. If it is not an especially inventive-looking work, it compensates by being tremendously well-executed.

Ultimately, the film isn't anything particularly special, and it suffers from some very grievous storytelling flaws. But it's entertaining enough, and smart enough to pass muster as a better-than-average art-house film. Admittedly, the single best reason to see it is probably the curiosity factor of watching a horror master dabbling in domestic drama, but such experiments have turned out much worse, and Tokyo Sonata is happily not without its charms, though it is undoubtedly a minor work.