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April 26, 2009

Job loss shakes up family roles

By Sister Helena Burns, FSP


“Tokyo Sonata,” the story of a Japanese businessman who loses his job and the impact it has on his family, is all too appropriate for our times.

In this film (which is in Japanese with English subtitles), each member of the family has their secrets, hopes and dreams: the dutiful wife who keeps everyone’s secrets, the musically gifted younger son, the older son trying to find his place in the larger world beyond Japan. Then there’s the father and husband who when he loses his job is too ashamed to tell his wife, so he pretends and goes off to work every day. He meets up with an old friend in the same condition he is, who is also fooling his wife.

Just the sight of the two of them, briefcases in hand, all dressed up for success and no place to go, is an apt image of the economic crash affecting much of the world’s economy. The culture of honor in Japan weighs oppressively on every character, but in spite of the father’s perpetual look of terror, anger and humiliation, this is not a downer movie.

The mother is the mediator for the contentious relationships between father and sons. Everyone seems to let their guard down and speak freely and humanly when the father is not around. The father himself lets his guard down when he’s not at home. Everyone feels they are playing a role which the father is directing, as though it is some sacred tradition that must be continued, even though it is making everything worse.

Three-quarters of the way into the movie, the movie falls apart. Bizarre misfortune after bizarre misfortune strike and suddenly there is tons of nonsubtle humor, and other stuff is funny that’s probably not supposed to be funny, and this near-perfect movie is ruined.

But then we are treated to a breathtaking, hushing, lump-in-the-throat, heartclinching, hope-filled, non-verbal ending that gets to Dad, too. Perhaps the wildly spun-out-of-control piece was meant to be just that, the surreal free-fall when our world comes apart.

Some other films exploring the stress of unemployment:

  • “The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006): A father and son strive mightily to make the right connections to build a new life.
  • “The Saint of Fort Washington” (1993): Mental illness causes homelessness. A veteran of the streets takes a young schizophrenic man under his wing. There but for the grace of God go we.
  • “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946): Losing everything can happen in a heartbeat. But life is still worth living.

Burns is a Daughter of St. Paul, ministers in Chicago and studied screenwriting at the University of California.