Cast: Kanji Furutachi, Mariko Tsutsui, Tadanobu Asano, Momone Shinokawa, Taiga, Takahiro Miura, Kana Mahiro
Director: Kôji Fukada
Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Writer-director Kôji Fukada's Harmonium is a parable about the consequences of past sins; fusing spare domestic drama with a strain of taboo darkness lingering just outside the edges of the narrative. It's a work of startling subtlety; imbued with an undercurrent of tragedy and empathy which speaks to Fukada's skill with framing his actors into tightly controlled geographical spaces. Though it toys with genre (there are elements of psychological thriller along with family drama), Harmonium is first and foremost a deeply devastating story about how secrets and lies can destroy one's sense of domestic normalcy.
From the outset, Fukada establishes a sense of place and routine within what appears to be a fairly standard household. There's the young girl of the house, Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa), who constantly plays the titular instrument, much to the annoyance of the father, Toshio (Kanji Frutachi), an anti-social metal worker who often ignores his long-suffering wife, Akié (Mariko Tsutsui) who dotes on her daughter while going about daily chores. During these early scenes, the film foregrounds the family's disconnected, yet efficient, living situation without drawing too much attention to the lack of warmth that should be felt there. Alternating between moments of Toshio meticulously cutting sheets of metal in the garage with languorous shots of Akié cleaning dishes and tending to her child, Fukada brilliantly exploits a schism in their relationship without ever dipping into melodrama.
A shift in the narrative occurs when, out of nowhere, a stranger named Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), appears as a houseguest and employee. Toshio hires and takes the man in without ever consulting Akié, creating yet another layer of social awkwardness. Gradually, we come to realize that Yasaka is actually an old friend of Toshio's who recently was released from serving an 11-year prison sentence for murder. Through its second act, Harmonium toys with audience expectations in ways both obvious and profoundly surprising. For example, the two men share a rigorously respectful relationship which hints a different set of rules entirely; something Fukada purposefully teases out as a nod to tension-building. Meanwhile, Yasaka seems genuinely ashamed of his past misdeeds, something that the religious-minded Akié clings to as a sign of benevolence. During one seemingly innocent scene, the overly polite stranger comes out of the shower shirtless and stops to admire Hotaru's harmonium-playing, creating a reaction from Akié which underscores her unspoken attraction to him.
What's most startling about Harmonium is that even though we know ominous things are forthcoming (Fukada liberally uses foreshadowing and symbolism not as a crutch, but as an invitation), the film keeps us second-guessing our assumptions about these characters. The sense of emotional and psychological unraveling is keenly felt through Fukada's use of symmetrical framing and detail-oriented set design, along with perfectly pitched performances; especially Tsutsui, who gives Akié a layered vulnerability which grows more desperate as the picture proceeds. There are more twists and turns to come, including a reveal taking place eight years after the events of the second act which take the film even deeper into the realm of grim nihilism. However, this cruelty isn't purposeless or mean-spirited, but rather, a natural extension of Fukada's themes. The subsequent absence of Yasaka from the narrative creates a haunting, destabilizing effect; forcing the remaining characters to question and challenge their own beliefs and assumptions about life.
Harmonium is a visceral gut-punch of a film; a morality play which ironically ends with the once stoic Toshio confronting his own demons wrought by a series of terrible past decisions. The concluding scenes may appear unfathomably bleak, but are they are necessary in revealing the often cryptic nature of human motives? Is the tragic ending inevitable or inextricable? Are the issues of guilt, regret, and violence cyclical, or can they be stopped or supplanted? While Harmonium never seeks to explicitly answer these questions, it does prove the power of cinema to conjure the darkest depths of human emotions.