Harmonium (2016) by Koji Fukada

Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) is a man living a comfortable life with his wife Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and young daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa). He has a workshop at home where he manufactures parts. Out of the blue and old friend, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), turns up and enquires how he is doing. Yasaka is recently out of an 11 year jail term and Toshio agrees that he can work with him and stay with his family. Akie is not comfortable with this at first, but Yasaka soon shows himself to be a kind individual, teaching Hotaru the harmonium which she is practicing for an upcoming recital. Akie’s acceptance of Yasaka, and their own friendship, sees him confess to the murder that put him in jail for 11 years. Akie’s Protestantism means that she is keen to forgive him and believes that god is looking out for him.

The following synopsis contains spoilers.

“Harmonium” is a film of two halves. The first is a slow character study of Toshio, his family, and Yasaka. At almost exactly the halfway point we are hit with three sudden and shocking moments that come like a gut-punch and leave the audience reeling. None are entirely unexpected, but the nature of what happens colours the entire second act and makes us reassess everything that went before. Firstly, while on a family outing Yasaka moves to kiss Akie, their relationship has become closer, and the two begin an affair behind Toshio’s back. The second shock comes after a scene in which Yasaka is rejected by Akie. We see him leave the house and he spots Hotaru on her way home. In the next moment we find Yasaka over Hotaru’s body, blood seeping from her head. Toshio and Akie find their daughter and Yasaka walks away. As if this moment were not shocking enough, the film then cuts to 8 years later. Toshio and Akie are still living and working as before, Toshio has now taken on a new apprentice, Takashi (Taiga). We learn that Hotaru was not killed in the incident, but paralysed and left in a wheelchair and barely able to communicate. This tragic occurrence leads to soul-searching from both Akie and Toshio, who eventually reveals his own role in the murder Yasaka committed.

Written and directed by Koji Fukada, “Harmonium” is a film that relies on an excellent script, superb performances from the main cast and direction that leads the audience through the subtle build up and crushing twists without being overly ostentatious. It is a character driven narrative that looks at a brutal and tragic occurrence and the impact it has on people. It can be hard to comprehend exactly what the message of the film is on first watch, but it is something that will stay with you. There are two dialogues early in the film that may shed some light on the underlying themes of the film. The first is when Hotaru is discussing a spider she heard about whose prodigy eat their mother. She asks whether the mother will go to heaven. The father asks later whether the children will go to hell for eating her, finally reasoning that they will all go to hell because even the mother must have eaten her mother and so on. This notion of heaven and hell is raised in conjunction with Akie’s protestant faith and the film is in part an exploration of notions of sin and redemption. Both Toshio and Yasaka have sinned, but the film asks pointedly whether either can be redeemed. Religion is raised again in a conversation between Akie and Yasaka, when he asks her whether she is like the kitten or the monkey when it comes to god. The kitten, he explains, is carried along by the scruff of its neck, while baby monkeys cling to their mother themselves. He believes she is like the cat, carried along by god partly unwillingly, while she disagrees, stating she clings to god more like the monkey.

Every performance in the film is praiseworthy, especially that of Mariko Tsutsui as Akie, a woman who is struggling through the most difficult circumstances and in danger of losing her faith. Kanji Furutachi gives an excellent performance as Toshio, who we learn is an atheist. He appears to have completely shut himself off from the world, including his wife and child to a certain extent, perhaps through guilt or an attempt to suppress his personality. Tadanobu Asano is also excellent as Yakasa, whose mannerisms appear unnatural, but in a way that is hard to fully define. There are moments that can be genuinely chilling, as when he sees Hotaru for the first time, but always played subtly so you are never quite sure if you are just imagining it. In a way the film is provoking the audience into making judgements on him, in the same way many in society would when confronted with an ex-convict.

Fukada’s direction helps to tell the story, further strengthening the script and performances into something that is completely engrossing. As mentioned, the film is one of two halves in terms of the narrative structure. There also appears to be a shift in direction following the incident. Early in the film there are many static shots, and framing is largely flat, with characters facing one another across a table for instance. As the film moves to the second half we see a more active camera, off-kilter shots and the momentum seems to suggest a couple that is falling apart. Colour is also used to great effect, whether the white overalls of Yakasa, or the apparent switch in clothing of Akie and her daughter during a dream sequence later in the film. The minimalist score, that really only begins late in the film, helps to emphasise the final dramatic moments.

“Harmonium” is a difficult film to watch, with very dark themes about the most horrific of incidents. It is a film about how the past can come back to haunt you, and how people learn to live with their mistakes. We never discover what happened with Yasaka and Hotaru. Unlike a conventional crime story, the film is unconcerned about the details of the crime, but more interested in the impact it has on the survivors. The feelings of anguish suffered by Toshio and Akie come crashing together with their own feelings of guilt over what happened. The Japanese title of the film “Standing in the Abyss”, probably captures this sense of utter devastation and loss the best. They are two people who are living, but unable to move on or climb out of their personal hell. A film that is definitely worth the watch for the fantastic performances and heart-wrenching story.

Air Doll (2009) by Hirokazu Koreeda

Bae Doona stars in this modern fairytale about an inflatable sex doll that comes to life. This miracle prompts her go out into the world and explore. Nozomi, as the doll is named, is a wide-eyed innocent to the bizarre behaviours of the citizens of Tokyo. We are treated to several scenes of her attempting to follow what others are doing or understand what is going on that gives us a fresh perspective on the everyday. She stumbles across a DVD rental store, where she is employed as an assistant, forming a close friendship with the young man who works there. At nights she returns to her owner, assuming an inanimate aspect to perform her role as a sex toy. On her daytime perambulations she meets a number of lonely people, including an old man pondering his existence, a middle-aged receptionist trying to recapture her youth, and a young pervert who spies on her in the store. As days go by, Nozomi attempts to fathom some reason for her existence.

Bae Doona’s performance as Nozomi is perfect in its fragile naivete and childlike wonder at the world. Throughout the film we see her becoming more confident and her range of expressions growing as she begins to understand emotions. Comedian Itsuji Itao plays her owner as a comi-tragic figure. We learn a little about him through short scenes of him at work and at home with Nozomi. While it may be tempting to laugh at his situation, we come to see that he is not a bad person, in fact he shows kindness to the doll beyond its basic utility, but rather a man disillusioned with society and withdrawn into his own reality. The same is true of the other characters in the film who are variously struggling to integrate with society or form connections with other people. There is a late cameo from Joe Odagiri as the dollmaker, which provides an interesting moment for Nozomi as she is essentially meeting her Maker.

The screenplay by director Hirokazu Koreeda is based on the original manga by Yoshiie Goda. “Airdoll” is a film that has an intriguing premise. The Little Mermaid is mentioned during the film and is among others one of the key influences, particularly in Nozomi’s later relationship with Junichi (Arata Iura). She is the typical fish-out-of-water, attempting to fit in and find love, albeit with an adult twist. The film is a tough watch at times due to the relentlessly downbeat tone. The various side-characters all have something to say about modern society, whether that is about the focus on youth and beauty, the misunderstanding of the relationship between sex and love, or the search for meaning in an otherwise meaningless life. The film often feels that it is labouring the same point but in slightly different ways. That being said there are few genuinely shocking moments, where the film seems to completely jump the tracks. Not in terms of its own internal logic, but in terms of what an audience might expect. One of these comes near the end of the film and sees a sudden shift from humorous to horrifying. It is peculiar as it cuts across the mild melancholy of what has come before in a brutal way.

Pin Bing Lee’s cinematography takes us right into the world of Tokyo, with sweeping rooftop scenes showing the contradictory nature of the city as a place that is at once bustling yet without any real sense of soul. The opening sequence is a good example of the film’s visual storytelling with Itsuji Itao’s lonely figure sitting on a train travelling around the tracks, trapped in the monotonous daily grind. Likewise Bae Doona’s early experiences with the world that rely on her acute facial expressions and body language before she learns to converse fully with others. Katsuhiko Maeda’s score underlines the melancholic nature of the film, with plaintive piano and strings drifting along and the use of breathing on the soundtrack is a clever device, a nod to the protagonist’s tenuous existence and also creating the sense of the city itself as a living thing.

The film is certainly an interesting watch, with plenty to say about modern life. The depressing, nihilistic tone may be hard for some to swallow, but it is not without its enjoyable moments. Joe Odagiri’s characters asks Nozomi pointedly to tell him if there was anything good in the world, or was it all just one long trial. The audience is left to ponder this question throughout with the meaning of life seeming to always hover just out of reach of the characters. Surprisingly, the sexual politics of the film are left largely unaddressed, although the set-up leaves plenty of room for projection from the audience about the rights and wrongs of relationships. Rather than a personal study the film is best examined as a wider commentary on society. There has been a disconnect between sex and love in society that seems to be damaging the heart of humanity itself and leading to the sort of alienation we witness amongst the characters. A worthwhile watch with a superb central performance and a novel twist on an old idea.

Tag (2015) by Sion Sono

It is hard to give a synopsis of this film without spoiling what is the most fun part of watching it: the constant unexpected shocks, gross-out moments, and bursts of ultra-violence. The film follows three main characters, Miyuki (Reina Triendl), a high-school student, Keiko (Mariko Shinoda), a reluctant bride, and finally Izumi (Erina Mano), a marathon runner, whose sections blend into one another to give the impression that this is one personality represented as three individuals. The film has a dream-like sensibility to it, flowing from scene to scene, mixing nightmarish fantasy with reality.

The film begins with a unique scene of carnage, almost as ridiculous as it is terrifying, and doesn’t really let up from there. It could best be described as an absurdist horror, which will surprise, amuse and disgust you (sometimes in the same scene). It becomes apparent early on that what you are watching is not intended to be realistic, but read as a metaphor for something else. Writer and director Sion Sono is known for grotesque and sexualised imagery and here we have both. It makes a mockery of cheap exploitation almost while exemplifying the genre itself, think schoolgirl underwear peeked under short skirts and extreme carnage that seems to come out of nowhere. “Tag” does not scrimp on the horror with some genuinely disturbing moments. It keeps you on edge in a way that plays into the themes of the film. There is an ever present threat that is heightened by the surreal nature of what is unfolding. The acting from the three leads is fantastic and they do a great job of expressing the terror of what is happening. Supporting performances from Yuki Sakurai, Aki Hiraoka and Ami Tomite are enjoyable and the cast all have good chemistry together as friends. It is clear that the director intended this to be more than a simple horror-action film, and the direction does a good job of creating a sense that there are social themes under the surface. An early sequence of Miyuki by the river, with corpses and clothing strewn about, has a peculiar beauty to it, and throughout there are moments that are unforgettable for a variety of reasons.

“Tag” is grotesque, exploitative, and sensationalist, but also with a strong message against misogyny. The fears faced by Miyuki and Keiko, around school and marriage, are exaggerations of typical anxieties faced by girls and women. The use of the white feathers exemplify this notion of a perceived feminine purity that becomes tainted throughout life and the fear this engenders. This is twinned with the paranoia of the opening sequences which see Miyuki switch uniforms (moving up in school years). She is constantly buffeted by forces she cannot control, perhaps representative of puberty, and forced to keep moving forward. Later in the film the white feather comes to symbolise freedom. We see it at the end of the film when the characters seem to have finally broken free of their constraints. Miyuki’s friend tells her to remember that the world is surreal and there is no predetermined path. This idea, that you should not allow yourself to be defeated by the world, but keep your own sense of yourself alive is important. The final scenes drive home this message about a patriarchal society that treats women as playthings, becoming almost a critique of the film itself and the way it treats its main characters. The film is a cry for individualism in a world where women are forced into particular roles. We constantly see characters running from some unseen force, or pushed and pulled by other characters into situations they are not sure about, or don’t fully understand. The real conflict here is between the women and society itself. It is also a film about free will versus determinism, albeit told in its own bizarre, blood-spattered way. I would recommend this film to any fans of gory exploitation cinema with a twisted sense of humour and an unexpected message.

Agitator (2001) by Takashi Miike

An underground rivalry spirals out of control in this thrilling yakuza tale from a master of the genre. Two rival gangs, the Shirane and Yokomizo groups find themselves locked in a tit-for-tat struggle following the death of one of their members. Things escalate when the heads of the groups are targeted. All of this is part of an audacious plot to take over the groups and see them affiliated with the larger Tenseikai syndicate.

With his “Black Society” and “Dead or Alive” trilogies of the nineties, Miike established himself as a director with a unique style, with often bloodspattered and extreme stories of violence. “Agitator” owes more of a debt to the former than the latter, something akin to a modern day “Yakuza Papers” in its complex hierarchies and increasingly dangerous vendettas, albeit with fictionalised Yakuza families. At the heart of the film is the rivalry between Shirane and Yokomizo gang members, that gives the audience larger forces to split up the large cast of characters. Much of the narrative involves plotting and manipulation by the higher-ups of the yakuza, punctuted by the violence carried out by their underlings. A few characters do fall by the wayside and there are relationships that are underdeveloped. Miike has a fantastic eye for blocking and framing scenes, using inventive camerawork to enliven what would otherwise be tedious scenes of exposition.

“Agitator” deals with themes familiar to many yakuza films: the shifting line between honour and duty; the cycle of violence engendered by revenge; and the hierarchical nature of criminal gangs, and by extension society, that sees people suffering at the whims of their superiors. The film is a sprawling gangster epic with excellent performances and a plot that keeps upping the ante with every twist and turn.

Kakera: A Piece of our Life (2009) by Momoko Ando

Haru (Hikari Mitsushima) is a university student trapped in an unfulfilling relationship. Her boyfriend Ryota (Tasuku Nagaoka), slovenly and uncaring, is seeing other women, and their loveless sex is the only thing keeping him coming back. While drinking alone in a coffee shop, Haru is approached by Riko (Eriko Nakamura), a prosthetics artist who was instantly attracted to her. The two begin a relationship, Riko having fallen in love, and Haru to escape her loneliness. The two women clearly want different things from each other, Haru nervous of commitment and Riko desperate for her to reciprocate her feelings of love. Following an argument, Riko also begins a relationship with a patient Toka (Rino Katase), for whom she is making a prosthetic breast.

Based on the manga “Love Vibes” by Erika Sakurazawa, with a screenplay by director Momoko Ando, the film is a straightforward story that is given real weight by its central performances. On the surface it is a simple love story, from Haru and Riko’s initial meeting we are drawn into Haru’s struggle to commit to Riko and leave her boyfriend Ryota. As it progresses we see that Riko is far from the perfect escape, bringing her own baggage and fears of rejection. Mitsushima gives a great performance as the naïve and somewhat easily-led Haru. She is unhappy, but indecisive, trapped in a world of her own creation. Her shyness may be symptomatic of her confusion about her sexuality, in contrast to the more assertive and confident Riko. Riko knows exactly who she is, and Nakamura gives a strong performance, and has much more dialogue, delivering some blistering speeches as she ruminates and rages about modern society. Tasuku Nagaoka’s Ryota is portrayed as a womanizer, with little feeling outside of sex, but he is also studious and clearly hardworking in his job. His flaw is that he is not providing Haru with what she wants, which is a deeper emotional connection. Rino Katase’s Toka is similarly a deeply flawed character, at once sympathetic yet domineering. She is a cold mirror to Riko, sharing her trait for possessiveness.

The script is heavy with metaphor and conversations often drift into philosophising on the nature of humans and sexuality, and the meaning of love. The cinematography does an incredible job of showing the emotional struggles of the characters, from the opening scene, in which Haru and Ryota’s relationship is perfectly encapsulated without any dialogue. One of the other standout moments is Haru’s dive into a pool full of the night sky, although somewhat at odds with the realism of the rest of the film. The gentle piano score by James Iha is romantic and drifts in and out as required, rarely overpowering the drama, but underlining the emotions that are resonating from the characters.

“Kakera” shows us women trapped in a male dominated world. This is evident in the sequence at an izakaya, when they are the only two women on a long table of besuited men. Their emotional scene plays out while these businessmen stare in blank silence, a representation of the women’s frustrations bubbling over in a society where they are largely ignored. It gives us a realistic portrayal of relationships, with jealousy threatening to tear them apart. There are a number of metaphors that are alluded to in the story. Riko’s job as a prosthetist, creating new body parts for people who have lost them through accident or illness, is an on-the-nose reference to people searching for love. The expressions “your other half” or “the missing piece” are often used to describe the feeling of finding love. Here it is made explicit that love is something that will fill a hole in your heart, or make you complete. That without love it is as though you are missing something vital. Some may disagree with this idea, but it is clear that both Haru and Riko are desperately searching for something. Whether that is love, or a deeper understanding of themselves and their own needs is debateable. The second metaphor, one that is less clearly defined, is the connection between war and sex or love. When the two women watch fireworks, Riko comments that they appear to be both ascending and descending, perhaps referencing the notion that love can be both positive and negative. In a later uncomfortable moment, Ryota forces himself on Haru while a war movie plays on the television. Again, this may be symbolic of the idea of male sexuality as aggressive, even destructive, or that both sex, lust and violence are inherent human traits. Love transcends these things, by being something outside of the purely physical experience. This metaphysical love is what both characters are striving for and something that the film succeeds in drawing out. With excellent cinematography, performances and score, this is a romantic movie that creates believable characters and has something profound to say about relationships.