Japan, what can be said about the land of the rising sun that hasn’t already been said; it’s modern, ancient, weird, beautiful, eccentric and eclectic. It is a land of contradiction and dichotomy, and these doubles are evident in the cinema. They have some of the most beautiful films ever made, but also some of the most disturbing and disgusting movies as well. Generally, these two sides of Japanese cinema never meet, however when they do the results can be some of the strangest and most beautiful products you are fortunate enough to see. Enter Harmonium, written and directed by Koji Fukada, will the 5th feature by the Japanese filmmaker combine what should be total opposites into something that can be considered entertaining.
Harmonium, or to give the film its Japanese title (Fuchi ni Tatsu) focuses on the story of a married couple, Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) and Akie (Mariko Tsutsui), as well as their young daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa). Their life is rather dull until someone from Toshio’s past, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), turns up outside Toshio’s mechanic shop and asks for a job. It turns out that Yasaka has just been released from prison, and the fact that Toshio offers work and accommodation in his house without consulting the family puts strains on his relationships, which are further tested through the strange and disturbing behaviour of their house guest.
The story is fantastic, well-paced and executed. Despite a time skip the film still feels whole and cohesive. Fukada’s previous film Hospitality shares some of the similar story elements (As Fukada revealed in a Screen-Space interview, that is because in 2006 Fukada wrote a synopsis for the movie then made Hospitality using the first half of the story as a sort of pilot). Both deal with an unexpected house guest and their effects on the family, however, while Hospitality took a more whimsical approach, Harmonium is darker, stranger and more dangerous.
This is predominantly a character drama, and thus the performances need to be top notch, and thankfully each actor brings their A-game. Tadanobu’s Yasaka is suitably subtle, with the audience unaware of his true intensions until it is revealed slowly over the course of the film. He is unnerving, unsettling and entirely unearthly like a ghost that haunts the family for the sins of the father. And though he is not on screen for the majority of the film his presence is still felt, and his performance still sticks in the mind. However, the standouts have to be Kanji Furutashi and Mariko Tsutsui as husband and wife Toshio and Akie. Though each character reacts to the tragedy that occurs at the films halfway point in different ways, both are none-the-less believable. Akie’s decent into obsessive-compulsive cleanliness could have seemed over-wrought in less skilled hands, but here, Tsutsui brings a weight and a grounded inner turmoil that is entirely believable. Similarly, Furutashi his grief is barely contained through a veneer of responsibility and determination, and when the walls finally crumble, and he releases that emotion, it is through a dam has burst, and waves of his sadness and rage wash over the emotion like powerful waves. Everyone in the film is a tour de force.
The cinematography is similarly excellent. The use of long takes and cold framing visually represent the rut that Akie and Toshio find themselves in. The use of colour also subtly associates certain colours with certain feelings, for example, red becomes an almost oppressive symbol for danger that slowly creeps its way into the film and puts the audience on edge whenever it can be seen. It is truly refreshing that a director like Fukada and his cinematographer Kenichi Negishi that are able to use all that film is to tell such a subtle and disturbing story.
Harmonium explores the construction of the Japanese family and finds the fatal traps that are found with in it. The film cleverly introduces western audiences to the Japanese notion of responsibility and how confining and dangerous it can be. It is a bizarre film filled with danger and thought provoking ideas. A must see film from a director that needs more recognition.