Finding scares outside of horror

Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa has made an international reputation over the last decade for his J-horror films, including the 1997 serial-killer thriller “Cure” and the 2001 ghosts-invading-the-Internet chiller “Pulse.”

But with his latest film, “Tokyo Sonata,” Kurosawa moves outside the horror genre and into the realm of family drama.

Still, “there hasn’t been a big internal change on how I think about things. It is simply I made a string of horror films and I wanted to try to do something different,” Kurosawa said through a translator on a recent visit to L.A.

But in its own way, “Tokyo Sonata,” which won the Un Certain Regard jury prize last year at the Cannes Film Festival, is a horror film, albeit one without ghosts, monsters or murderers. It delves into the all-too-real terror of unemployment.

The film -- opening Friday at Laemmle’s Sunset 5, Monica 4-Plex, Playhouse 7 and Town Center 5 -- explores how a family slowly falls apart when the father, Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa), loses his job as a middle management administrator at a Tokyo corporation. Instead of telling his wife, his older rebellious son and his younger son, Ryuhei dresses in his business clothes every day and “goes to work.”


He stands in long lines at the employment agency -- he’s even forced to sing karaoke at one job interview -- has lunch at a bread line for the unemployed and commiserates with friends who are in the same position. Eventually, he gets a job as a janitor at a shop- ping mall while keeping up appearances for his family and friends.

“I wanted to make sure I was making a film that wasn’t just an innocent and happy portrait,” said the 53-year-old filmmaker, who is no relation to Akira Kurosawa. “We are still exploring issues of desperation, loneliness and alienation. The same sort of things I was doing in horror films.”

For all of the film’s hopelessness -- one of Ryuhei’s unemployed friends murders his wife and commits suicide, and a manic thief kidnaps Ryuhei’s wife -- the film does have a slightly upbeat note. “I am always interested in providing some measure of hope with my films,” he said.

Though Ryuhei’s obsession with keeping his job loss from his family may seem a bit extreme to Western audiences, Kurosawa notes that it is part of Japanese tradition.

“The average salaried businessman in Japan, when he goes out to work, what he does is often kept from the family,” he says. “The family has no clue what they do. So it creates an illusion of authority.”

But when fathers and husbands lose their jobs, “they are unable to define a role for themselves other than simply going out and working. It is as if working defines you, gives you an identity as a father and husband.”

Though the traditional family structure is unraveling in his homeland, it is neither as drastic nor dramatic as he depicts in “Tokyo Sonata.” “It is all a process of change right now,” Kurosawa said.

“People don’t know what to make of it. So there is a lot of confusion and chaos,” he added. “I think you can trace it back to just over 60 years ago, when Japan lost the Pacific war and Western values were introduced to Japan, which caused a great deal to change in the social fabric. But you have the old system remaining in some fashion.

“What is becoming clear is that a third new system is becoming necessary. I think it’s all part of a process after which we should be able to find a new way of looking at a family.”