Harmonium (Fuchi ni tatsu)
Japan (2016) Dir. Koji Fukada
Sometimes a film can reflect more on the filmmaker than on the viewer. Whilst we may have a perverse curiosity in some topics, someone has to create that story in the first place. Therefore, it is less “Why am I watching this” but more “What kind of mind comes up with this kind of thing?”
Case in point is Harmonium, the latest outing from Japanese arthouse director Koji Fukada, an obtuse and abstruse affair that ponders many things but never proffers anything in the way of answers or rationale for what occurs. This subversive and dark nature does make us wonder what is going on in Fukada’s head to produce such grim ideas.
The barebones story reveals itself to be frighteningly fertile. A suburban family, Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), his wife Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and their 10 year-old daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa), live a staid existence through Akie’s religious leanings and Toshio’s small metal works business. One day, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), on old friend of Toshio’s shows up, recently released from prison.
With nowhere to go and no job, Toshio hires Yasaka and invites him to stay in the house, which initially unsettles Akie but in teaching Hotaru how to improve her playing of the harmonium, an instrument she was terrible at, Yasaka gradually endears himself to the family. Yasaka confesses everything to Akie about being in prison for murder but this unburdening only exacerbates the spark beginning to ignite between them. Then tragedy strikes.
Essentially this is a story of two halves but what occurs in the second hour won’t be revealed here as it will amount to giving everything away and this really is a film that benefits from the viewer going into this with as little information as possible. This makes it quite the investment for anyone either not familiar with Fukada’s work or keen on slow burning, arthousey films.
“Slow burn” is probably an understatement as the first hour is almost inert as Fukada details the daily routines of the family and Yasaka’s silent, spectre like presence in their lives. Clad in a white shirt, black trousers and a stiff posture, Yasaka would probably unnerve Ringu’s Sadako he is that creepy, but he is well mannered and philosophical about seeking redemption for his crimes.
Fukada plays it so the more Akie and Hotaru warm to Yasaka the more the audience becomes concerned for them, giving us the opportunity to work out our suspicions from an objective position. In fact, Fukada plays it too close to the textbook, giving Yasaka a moment to let the facade slip into front of Toshio before resuming his contrite and placid persona.
This following of conventions is of course completely deliberate, the proverbial calm before the storm if you will, as none of it prepares us for the turn of events that follows, from the shocking incident that will haunt the family forever to… well, you’ll have to see for yourself if I’ve already piqued your interest thus far. It’s another example of Fukada’s devious mind but this time it is for the right reasons.
It’s not just the family who have the carpet pulled from under their feet but the audience too and Fukada is to be applauded for the beautiful twists and turns that unfold in the second hour we don’t see coming at all. In terms of pacing things also pick up, cutting back on the meandering and quotidian drabness that blights the first hour, making this 120 minute feature feel longer.
But Fukuda isn’t done, adding a distinct surreal flavour to the final act that is something of a double edged sword – on the one hand it lays bare the psychological damage endured by the family and puts an existential oneiric spin on it; on the other hand, it leaves too many threads and open and the cast tend to spout nonsense that clashes with their personalities. And this is before we get to the bizarre ending.
Yet we may not know the characters at all since most of them end up betraying our original perception of them, the shared factor being the secrets they keep. Toshio seems a little uptight but we don’t expect to learn what we do about him, or how he reacts later on. For all her pious, straight-laced demeanour suggests, Akie is perhaps not as chaste as she makes out, her flirting with Yasaka laced with ambiguity as to who is leading whom.
There are others which can’t be discussed for spoiler reasons but the significance of Yasaka being the first person to confess isn’t lost when the threads of the cosy family life begin to unravel. As ever it is the innocent who ultimately suffer and in this isn’t there is no crueller example of illustrating the film’s theme of consequences than the choice of victim.
Employing a minimalist approach of washed out colours, largely static cameras and sparse use of music allows the focus to remain solely on the actors. Tadanobu Asano is effortlessly disturbing without being even the slightest bit overt, aside from that one outburst, through his stoic presence alone. Kanji Furutachi steps up from supporting roles to prove he can carry a film but is overshadowed by the richly nuanced turn from Mariko Tsutsui, as Akie, the gentle bud that blooms into a stinging nettle.
Whilst I can’t explain why, newcomer Kana Mahiro who plays Hotaru in the second half of the film has probably the toughest role in the whole film, one which even experienced actors would struggle with, let alone for their first ever gig. And let’s not forget Taiga who also plays a vital part in the second half too.
Koji Fukada wanted to make an abstract film about violence and the ongoing myriad of repercussions stemming from it, and Harmonium does achieve this, along with being provocative in content and the annoying lack of resolution. If only he’d just get to the point a little quicker…