Film Review: Harmonium (Koji Fukada)

by Jason Suzuki

Film Movement have returned to the works of Koji Fukada, having distributed his 2010 film Hospitalite, about the destabilization of the family unit that ensues when a man lets an old acquaintance stay in his home and work for his printing press (also in home). Now they have gotten behind his latest film Harmonium, the Cannes winner also about the disruption a stranger causes a family once invited inside. Even the director himself feels as if Hospitalite were a test run for Harmonium. But this isn’t the kind of test-run like Kagemusha was for Ran. While the concerns may be the same Harmonium feels as though it is coming from a different filmmaker altogether. This is most certainly the result of a more experienced director working with a tighter cast, who need to be exceptional to portray these characters in Fukada’s internally focused film. Breezy and ultimately coming off as sleight, Hospitalite is in opposition to the rigid, highly planned form of Harmonium’s narrative which is one of the year’s best films.

The film opens on centered, direct shots of Toshio and Akie’s home. We are now a staying guest in there home as we will revisit these places, and framings, repeatedly. At the dinner table Akie (Mariko Tsutsui who is just as watchable in Anti-Porno also playing SDAFF this year) discusses with her daughter the topic of heaven’s acceptance of baby spiders that eat their mothers upon birth. Father Toshio (Fukada regular Kanji Furutachi) eats, does not participate, and eventually goes back to his work in their small factory located right at their home. In Hospitalite it was Furutachi who was the intruder, but now that role has been given to Tadanobu Asano as Yasaka. Recently released from prison he appears like a spectre. As if he had lived in the same house the whole time but is just now visible.

Toshio invites Yasaka to work and live with his family for a few months. The offer is not through friendship or returning a favor but through debt. Because of how close Toshio plays it to the vest we don’t see just how begrudging this debt is. Like most of these “guest films” it’s not long before Yasaka works his way into the favors of at least the majority of the family unit. Through lessons on the harmonium he gives their young daughter Akie warms up to the man. It's not long until he tells her the crime he was jailed for, her religion helping her find hope in the man convicted of murder. It's not long before they start making advances on each other, only to have Akie push him away. It's these tensions which slowly escalate to the film's dividing moment.

This first half of the film merely serves as the introduction for its second half, taking place eight years later, and where all of the heartbreak lies. Yasaka’s time in their home and the incident of his exit haunt the family, both Akie and Toshio clearly repeating the day Yasaka left in their heads looking for answers to their regrets. To give much more detail on the specifics of the second part’s home dynamic would take away from the spell which the film constantly is layering upon with the arrival of a second visitor who is the second quake for this family. 

Asano's performance lives up to the haunting presence his character calls for. He not only needs to be the center of the film's opening half but command enough power to remain in the second half despite not appearing. His guarded, almost blank nature in opposition to the probing the other characters undergo.

The film’s original title, which translates to “standing on the edge” might have been unfairly considered too literal which is why the instrument featured throughout made for its international title. But the term “standing on the edge” speaks to a deeper feeling which the film neither shows nor states but relays with its hypnotic form; unspoken impulses and situations which the film can only share with the audience in ways completely non-didactic. The repetitions of shot compositions except with the individuals rearranged, the sounds of machinery creating a pulse, these are just some of the devices most easily noticeable in this film which feels just as much a stranger as Yasaka did to the family, and as the married couple eventually realize towards each other. And just like a stranger the film vanishes once it has gotten under the skin, but not before making two cruel allusions, made all the more cruel as they take place one right after the other.