Family man Ryûhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) works as an administrator in a successful company, but is soon to find out what it is that makes that establishment so prosperous. He thought his job was secure, but one morning he is called in to the boss's office to be asked what else he can do for them - his old job description does not exist anymore as the domestic business has been downsized thanks to them finding cheaper staff in China. Sasaki is at a loss to come up with anything, and is soon shown the door, but how can he tell his wife and sons?
How about he doesn't tell them at all, the sense of shame being so weighty (as we can see from his dejected trudge along the streets as he walks home) making him extremely reluctant to admit to anyone that he has been fired, therefore he continues to leave his house every morning and return every evening when he has in fact been wandering around looking for work and passing the time. This might seem a story very specific to Japan, but director and co-writer Kiyoshi Kurosawa was so sympathetic to the plight of his lead character that he fashioned a tone far more universal than first glances may have indicated.
Everyone has been part of a family, after all, and felt those emotions, uncomfortable as they are, of letting them down at some point, but Sasaki doesn't really take his new lifestyle too well, as his humiliation turns into anger and lashing out is the order of the day. His two sons, Takashi (Yû Koyanagi) who wants to join the U.S. Army, and Kenji (Kai Inowaki) who wishes to play the piano, bear the brunt of Sasaki's pent up fury as it emerges in brief but damaging outbursts. They were always told, indeed the impression is that Japanese society was always told, that they were all meant to do what they enjoyed to be happier people, but for their father that is not now the case.
Not because he does not want to strive for contentment, but because he cannot see a way to do that anymore, and his frustrations detrimentally affect the whole family as he does get work, but not in admin, rather as a toilet cleaner in a shopping mall. We can tell he's not alone as professionals across the country have been losing their jobs and have to take a few steps down the social ladder from where they had become, if not comfortable, at least stable: Sasaki meets an old schoolfriend Kurosu (Kanji Tsuda) who is in the same position, pretending to have a job so as not to lose face, but actually eating lunch at handout kitchens and rambling around to kill time.
Sadly, that's not all he ends up killing as the pressure gets too much, a sobering twist for Sasaki, but this is not his story alone when the other three members of his brood begin to fall apart as well. Takashi, much against his father's wishes, enters the Army to fight in the Middle East, and Kenji steals lunch money to pay for the lessons, while wife Megumi (Kyôko Koizumi) winds up on quite an adventure that prompts a long, dark night of the soul for her. There are signs that this was meant to be funny if not exactly hilarious, but there's such a sadness to Tokyo Sonata, something it has in common with some of Kurosawa's horror outings he was best known for, that even at the end which attempts to send the audience, not to mention his characters, away with a note of hope you can't quite shake the melancholy of what has gone before. Build on that, the film says, and you'll be able to make it through your troubles. Music by Kazumasa Hashimoto.