Film of the Week: Harmonium
The Japanese title of Kôji Fukada’s drama Fuchi ni tatsu means “standing on the edge,” but someone—whether the sales agent, or Fukada himself—has thoughtfully come up with the resonant export title Harmonium. It’s a title that gives you something to riff on free-associatively when you’re trying to pin down what the film is about. The film is not actually about a harmonium, although it contains one, played in different scenes both with sonorous wheeziness and silently, with the keys simply clicking away eerily. However, the story does involve a family whose own harmony rests on very unstable ground, a family that ends up being expertly played like a keyboard by an unexpected house guest. Beyond that, since the harmonium is an instrument often associated with Protestantism—this particular family’s faith—you can factor the title into the film’s oblique theological drama about justice and redemption, or perhaps damnation.
Fukada’s film is an unsettling home invasion drama of sorts, with a touch of Buñuelian absurdism—or something like a hyper-detached Japanese answer to Theorem, or Cape Fear. It begins with a glimpse into the home life of a family of three—supposedly the most stable number. They are mother Akie (Mariko Tsutsui), father Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), and young daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa), whose creaky metronome-accompanied keyboard practice starts the film. You couldn’t have a more mundanely reassuring picture of family life—although Toshio’s retreat into the pages of his newspaper suggests that their rapport isn’t all it could be. A discordant note is set by young Hotaru’s discussion of a nest of baby spiders in the garden which have eaten their own mother; the tone feels all the more decisively off when this leads to a theological discussion of whether spiders get to go to heaven or hell.
We’ve hardly had time to settle into whatever passes for normality in this household when a mystery figure appears on the threshold of the machine shop that Toshio runs downstairs. Standing ramrod straight in what will essentially be his uniform of black trousers and white shirt buttoned up to the neck, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano) turns out to be an old acquaintance of Toshio’s, just released from prison. They converse quietly, respectfully, cautiously; Toshio says, “Sorry I didn’t visit you.” Alarm bells ring—as we know from the movies, that’s an apology rarely accepted with good grace.
Before we know it, Yasaka has become a member of the household—first joining Toshio as his assistant in the workshop, then moving into the spare room, to Akie’s initial annoyance. Yasaka is a discreet presence at first, but can’t help making himself noticed: walking in from the shower in his underpants, he mutters to Akie, “Sorry, a habit.” He eats a little too ravenously at breakfast. And his very presence in the room disturbs Hotaru’s keyboard practice—he’s literally messing up the family harmony. At this point, Harmonium is warming up nicely as a delicately sour study of courtesy and the flouting thereof. I haven’t seen Fukada’s other films, but this may be a key theme: by all accounts, Harmonium is a darker variation on his 2010 comedy Hospitalité, in which Furutachi played the invader rather than the invaded.
We’re beginning to wonder exactly what the deal is between Yasaka and Toshio. In fact, we’re not going to learn much, not yet, about their relationship—but Yasaka proves only too willing to unburden himself to Akie, which he does in a long, pensive monologue. All his woes, he says, result from his principle of staying true to his beliefs, for which he once killed someone. This principle, he says, led to him accepting truth and his fate, and the accompanying death sentence, which he appears to have dodged (unless you’re inclined to read Yasaka as a quietly vengeful phantom). This is a terrific scene, coolly acted and directed with great control, as Kenichi Nagishi’s camera creeps gently in on Yasaka, who speaks with his voice suspended in absolute silence; it’s only in the last image of this scene, an establishing shot displaced to the very end, that we realize that he and Akie are sitting in a café. She’s so raptly attentive to him, as are we, that their surroundings had temporarily disappeared around them.
True believer Akie muses on Yasaka, “A man like him must be especially loved by God.” Indeed, forever dressed in white, whether in shirt and tie or workshop overalls, Yasaka looks very much like a sort of Christ figure. That is, unless—as a sudden dramatic flash of blood-red T-shirt suggests—he’s really Satan, silver-tonguedly working himself into Akie’s esteem and affections. Either way, he’s part of the family, as suggested by a holiday photo for which Akie invites Yasaka to snuggle up with his hosts on their beach towel—an image echoed, in a very bizarre variation, at the film’s end.
Signs of chaos creeping in—notably a shot of prim Akie uncharacteristically curled up on a sofa, in fatigue or sensual disarray—prepare us for the crisis that eventually erupts. And from here on, there’s nothing else I can reveal about the plot, except that Yasaka disappears from the scene as suddenly as he arrived, there’s an 8-year gap in the timeline, and an entirely new character turns up laden with secrets that are revealed both dramatically and with a disarming casualness. Right up to the end, the enigma that continues to hover is that of Toshio; suffice to say that this reticent, rather professorial paterfamilias has plenty to reveal on his own account.
What makes Harmonium so effective isn’t just the out-and-out strangeness of its narrative, which turns on a very disturbing incident that changes everything. No, it’s the mundanity and flatness of the way in which Fukada stages this creepy little parable. The film’s settings are, by and large, nondescript—characters are seen walking on the bridges and walkways that surround the house, that seem to hem in the suburb where the family live. There’s a sudden burst of energy at the film’s center point, marked by a burst of frenzied hand-held camera—it’s so striking because of the affectless, seemingly functional staging of the overall film, as if Fukada had attempted to leach the film of overt style. This makes certain discrete images, seen or reported, stand out as all the more significant—an array of scarlet hibiscus flowers, which we’re told are very short-lived, a sudden flight of crows, those ominous spiders. The film is laden—almost solemnly so—with symbols and significant images, but the joke is that there’s no obvious sense of what they might mean. We’re left to interpret them ourselves, as the family interprets everything that happens to them—and, as with the family, more fool us if we get them wrong. There’s even a self-referential joke about the film’s excessive symbolism, as one character—discussing an outrageous coincidence in his life—comments, “I took that as fate giving me a sign.”
The overall flatness leads to a feeling that meanings are being suspended, that nothing is quite real or substantial. We learn late in the day that Yasaka has a past as a yakuza, and we accept it as fact—yet it’s somehow hard to believe in this information as having any real weight. It’s a sort of empty fact that plays its part in the narrative, but its dramatic value is zero. And that somehow fits with what’s effectively an existential narrative, rather than a drama with any conventional emotional charge beyond its undeniable shock value. The film has something of the feeling of a cold mathematical demonstration, which may leave viewers feeling short-changed—and which may make Harmonium, ultimately, the kind of bad dream that doesn’t get under your skin, but dissolves soon after you’ve woken.
What does gives Harmonium a more resonant charge is the cast. Furutachi and Tsutsui are both poisedly ambivalent, respectively as a father who guards his secrets right up to the end and as a stiff, well-mannered suburbanite whose religious tenderness turns out to be the door to her repressed sensuality. As for Tadanobu Asano, his presence has a creepy charisma that derives partly from his star status as one of the most internationally visible of Japanese actors, a veteran of work by Miike, Koreeda, and Oshima, but also seen recently in Scorsese’s Silence and the Thor movies. His Yasaka is a saturnine enigma, a blank closed surface until he too erupts in a nice moment of rasping contempt towards Toshio. There’s also a nicely unreadable moment when Yasaka stands calmly watching a couple fuck against a tree, way off in the distance. For a moment the film feels less like Buñuel, closer to the baleful mood of a Bruno Dumont film—but perhaps the thought of Japanese Bruno Dumont is a little too spooky to conjure with even for a film like this.