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.