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.