Harmony (Hâmonî)

Japan (2015) Dir. Michael Arias & Takashi Nakamura

Governments want to control everything within their purview – if they could synchronize the minds, feelings of every person under their auspices, you know they would take it. In some ways, many succeed with political ideology drawing in the weak minded and easily led – in the future, medical and technology advancements might make this possible for this to happen. They may sell it as utopia but at what cost to us?

After a catastrophic nuclear event known as The Maelstrom wiped out much of humanity, the World Health Organisation developed nanotechnology to restore life and in turn, monitor and control the health and minds of people via an implant called WatchMe. Essentially a network that connects everyone, things like pain and sadness are shared and felt by everyone. WatchMe isn’t activated until a person turns 18, after which life is now pleasant, empathetic, and illness free.

Three 17 year-old friends, Cian Reikado, Miach Mihie, and Tuan Kirie, feel this utopia will rob them of their identity and freedom. They agree to a suicide pact before they turn 18, but only Miach dies. Thirteen years later, Tuan returns to Japan, reuniting with Cian, who suddenly kills herself, the latest in a spate of unexplained global suicides. Tuan is given five days to investigate Cian’s death, uncovering a terrorist group planning to instigate more suicides.

Harmony has as its centre an intriguing if terrifying premise – what if health companies were in position of government instead of political parties? The influence they would have is beyond ideology but medical and cerebral control. Based on the novel by Project Itoh, the story supposes the cons outweigh the pros of a long life without pain, illness, stress, heartache, and other things we feel to remind us we are still alive.

Ideally, this would be the sort of existence many people would want, and wouldn’t even think they have to compromise their personalities or individual thought to have it. But being Japanese, this won’t be explored via a linear, easy to follow narrative – the premise may be simple, but this is two hours of garrulous info dumps and exchanges of skewed philosophies with occasional bursts of action to break up the monotony.

Dependant on your personal tastes, this is either a plus or a minus – somewhat ironic given the film’s conceit of something that sounds great but comes with a caveat. If you like your dystopian sci-fi heavy on the prolix side, this is for you. In essence, it is like Ghost In The Shell without the cool stuff; Tuan is maybe not be as charismatic or as ethereal as the Major, but she is a tough chick in her own right.

We first meet her as an adult, working for the WHO as a senior investigator, where she does contraband trades with the Arabs – except she is found out and suspended. Tuan may have had her WatchMe activated but she has remained true to her original ideals, thus has a mind of her own. She left Japan because she couldn’t stand the homogenised, clinical politeness, but suspension forces her home again.

Flashbacks allude to Tuan and Miach’s friendship being much more, positing Cian as the third wheel. It was Cian backing out of the suicide pact and telling her parents which saved Tuan but not Miach, who saw this gesture as statement not of rebellion but of freedom of thought; an extreme reaction perhaps, but it delineates Miach’s personality as defined by a slowly revealed tragic history. As such, Miach fears that she won’t exist anymore and in death, she is preserved forever.

Such existentialist philosophies should be fertile enough to discuss without the terrorism direction, which furthers GITS comparisons. Yet, this development brings with it a new morality to be challenged, where again choice is denied. The terrorists develop their own version of WatchMe, called Harmony, which would bring everyone together in a collective existence but it has deadly side effects; the group is now split between those who still want to launch it, and those who want to stop it. And Tuan is caught in the middle.

Koji Yamamoto’s screenplay gives us a lot to unpack and when distilled in précis form it makes for a riveting read – in execution, it will likely take a few watches for all the salient facts and key plot points to sink in. As already discussed, this is a verbose film where tell and not show is the format, and would have benefitted from Tuan making the discoveries herself rather than have everyone she meets explain it for her.

Visually, this is mix of 2D and CG, partly due to it originally being planned for a dual release with another Project Itoh title, Genocidal Organ, but delays to the latter saw production of this one brought forward. Even with strong imagery, maybe the dialogue heavy approach was to save time and cut costs, but Studio 4°C’s presentation is still impressive; the sterility of the Japanese city is palpable – bland, art deco like buildings of pink and white, looming soullessly over the landscapes like an unfinished painting.

But will this be enough to win viewers over? The action sequences may be fleeting but lift the energy level, whilst providing temporary visual excitement amidst the often inert chat sessions. Cutting through a lot of the sci-fi influenced guff slows things down for as much as the expository conversations do, not helped by dizzying on screen flashiness to create a virtual communication forum. 

One can see the clear potential richness of the concept behind Harmony when reduced to brass tacks, and I suppose we can’t blame anyone for wanting to ensure the transition from the written word to a visual medium doesn’t compromise the integrity of the source material. Therefore, enjoyment of this film will depend on the patience of viewer and their tolerance of a ruminative narrative.

Make your own mind up, you are allowed to.