Director: Kôji Fukada
Stars: Mariko Tsutsui, Tadanobu Asano, Kanji Furutachi
While it is not wholly inaccurate to describe Kôji Fukada’s latest as a quiet film, the use of loud sounds to punctuate and ratchet tension proves repeatedly integral. Take a key scene from the second half. By this time a malaise has settled firmly over the central family as past deeds and traumas threaten to consume the present. The relationship between husband and wife Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) and Akié (Mariko Tsutsui) has weakened to say the least. Akié suspects Toshio of involvement in a crime from many years past. Toshio knows his wife has been unfaithful. The mood is stormy already. Fukada has Toshio sit opposite Akié and clip his toenails. As Akié quietly questions her husband the soundtrack is pitted by the cutting of the toenails. The click, click, click like audible ellipses. This effect is echoed at the end of the scene when the tables are turned and Toshio confronts Akié about her infidelity. With all of their secrets spilled, Akié starts to harshly slap herself in the face. The slap, slap echoes the click, click, click. These sounds intensify an already combustible scene.
Harmonium is my entry point into the cinema of Kôji Fukada and it mercilessly dispels the assumption that a 12A certificate Japanese film about family drama is likely to be cast in the Yasuijo Ozu mould, where content is typified by light comedy or deft and tasteful bittersweet revelation. While some of Ozu’s formal style is mirrored here (and why not? It’s such beautiful presentation), Fukada has different intentions when it comes to tone and content. Harmonium is a tragic piece. A sins-of-the-father parable that forms a whirlpool of damaging behaviour and unfortunate events. There’s little escape from the threat of drowning.
The film divides quite neatly into two halves set approximately eight years apart. In the first half we come to know Toshio and Akié. They have a daughter named Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa). Toshio runs a metalwork business out of the family garage and seems, at first, rather disinterested in family life. One day, a man from his past arrives named Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano). For reasons which will become apparent later, Toshio seems rather beholden to this man, who has recently been released from prison. He gives him a job. To Akié’s initial dismay, he also offers Yasaka a place to live right there with them. The family dynamic is changed by this imposing, often strange man with his stiff, almost robotic gestures. Despite her initial reservations, Akié finds herself drawn to Yasaka as he starts opening up to her. The two dance around the prospect of an affair together. An unexpected and mysterious tragedy abruptly tears a hole in everything.
I am loath to divulge much regarding the second half as the film unspools a number of secrets that are riveting to experience in the moment. Omens coarse through the entirety of Harmonium, however. An innocuous family photo becomes not only a crucial plot mcguffin but is recast disturbingly by the end; the colour red used traditionally to warn of impending danger is applied faithfully here; two bed sheets cast from a washing line at Toshio’s feet become ghoulish future echoes as Fukada drives his family to their eventual fates. The film’s two halves mirror one another remarkably too. In each instance an outsider disrupts the family unit, or perhaps instigates the reveal of preexisting disharmony.
There is a harmonium in the film – and it features prominently in the first half – but the title almost feels like Fukada has taken the word and stretched and contorted it to find a new meaning in its syllables. The word itself, pleasing, whimsical and lyrical, comes to feel more sinister, as though it instead represents a chamber of torture, or an imposing gauntlet of suffering. Entering Fukada’s harmonium is a challenging experience, not least thanks to its jarring final shot, one which some viewers will likely feel confounded by. Fascinating as it is, Harmonium is a film that improves markedly in the aftermath. In the moment, it’s an uneasy experience; afterward it expands as you ruminate on it, as motifs resonate and the precise construction of the narrative comes into focus.
While most settings identify the film as a kitchen-sink drama in locations prone to rather flat framing, Fukada still manages to create some provocative imagery, most keenly as he flirts with dreams and moments of altered or untrustworthy perception. In these moments he breaks out of the confines of the remainder of the film, which is made up mostly – but not entirely – of static shots. Indeed, when Fukada does untether his camera for unwieldy handheld scenes, the effect is jarring and – like everything else here – entirely deliberate.
An early scene ultimately feels key. Young Hotaru asks her mother if a mother spider eaten alive by her young will go to heaven. Akié assures her that for her sacrifice she will. But what then of her babies? Are they doomed to hell? And surely the mother spider must have, at some time, eaten her own mother too? Harmonium sees its adult characters grasping fitfully for renewed purity through clouded means. Their final, horrendous baptism might not even be enough to save them.