I am buying this because I saw it at the cinema a few months ago, and haven't been able to get it out of my head since. I've seen other films by this director, who until now specialized in suspenseful, eerie "horror" films (although they were more unsettling really). This film has some of the same atmosphere of oppression, as the main character loses his job, and with it, his hope and his semblance of a normal life. The parody of a life that he leads to try to pretend everything is ok, has moments of wonderful humour amidst the oppressive hopelessness, especially when he meets someone else in the same situation.
Slowly, Ryuhei's life and those of his family unravel and reach breaking point. And around them, others in a similar position give up and succumb to fate. But throughout the rather depressing main plot, it is the little things that offer relief - moments of humour, a tiny bit of hope, and piano lessons. Somehow, the characters carry on. And then, things take a bizarre twist, when a similarly hopeless thief turns up.
This reminds me of the director's earlier film "Kourei", which, whilst being a ghost story, somehow spends more time reflecting on the relationship of a quiet middle-aged couple, as they come to accept that the dreams of their youth will never now come true. In this film, the couple are the central figures, who must both separately go off and find themselves by undertaking a journey that takes them far beyond their normal life. And the director draws the film to a close with the youngest son playing the piano, we are finally able to hear him for ourselves, and it seems to underline the conclusion to the film.
I highly recommend this film. But it is very understated, there is very little high drama, and all the tension is under the surface, in a way that is very Japanese.