When the average American film fan thinks of Japanese movies, they'll probably picture one of three things: either a samurai or a gangster -- Toshiro Mifune and his sword, or Takeshi Kitano and his gun -- or a stringy-haired ghost girl. Die-hard fans will know that Yasujiro Ozu, Nagisa Oshima and Mikio Naruse also made contemporary dramas about modern-day citizens, often trying to figure out their lives in the post-WWII turmoil. But those dramas were hindered by the times, or by the censors; the characters were polite and functional and hid their own true emotions in an attempt to do what they were supposed to be doing. But there's something in the air over in Japan right now; they're making melodramas, big, roiling, red-blooded ones filled with anguish and torment and heartbreak.
Earlier this year, Kiyoshi Kurosawa -- who is thus far best known for his truly terrifying films like Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001) -- came out with Tokyo Sonata, a devastating (but defiantly odd) look at a crumbling family. The father loses his job, the eldest son contemplates joining the U.S. military and the youngest son sneaks off for secret piano lessons, while the mother finds herself kidnapped by a charismatic burglar. Kurosawa somehow ties together these plot threads with a few scenes at the family home, in which little of the stuff that we can see happening actually gets discussed. It's a brilliant portrait of disconnect and lack of communication.