Harmonium (2016)

Harmonium first published by Little White Lies

Koji Fukuda’s Harmonium (Fuchi ni tatsu) opens with sounds of the eponymous instrument being played out of tune. Recognising her own shortcomings, young Hotaru (Momone Shinakawa), who is practising for a concert, turns on a metronome to impose a semblance of order on all the false notes – in what is also a metaphor for Hotaru’s family life. While her mother Akie (Mariko Tsutsui), a Protestant, says grace before breakfast and then chats away with Hotaru, Akie’s atheist husband Toshio (Kenji Furutachi) buries himself in his newspaper at the table and ignores both of them. He and Akie are just letting their loveless marriage tick over, hoping that routine alone is enough to cover the underlying dissonances in this household.

It will turn out in a later scene that Toshio, despite his apparent disengagement, was in fact listening to his daughter’s chatter about a species of spider whose young devour their willing mother. This trivial seeming conversation opens up unexpectedly  theological questions on the nature of good and evil (does the self-sacrificing mother go to Heaven? will her children go to Hell? and was the mother not once a child herself?), while also providing a counterpoint to a narrative in which the sins of parents are visited upon children. The family’s domestic disharmony becomes exposed with the arrival of Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), an old friend of Toshio’s just released from an 11-year prison stint for murder. With his buttoned up dress shirt, his neatness and his stiff manner, Yasaka is instantly marked as a misfit, but he is also kind, attentive and helpful – in other words, everything that Toshio is not. In their different ways, Akie and Hotaru both love him, while for Toshio he represents the return of a guilty conscience and a long buried secret. Something has to give.

HarmoniumRecalling the family films of Hirokazu Koreeda or even Yasujiro Ozu, with its camera an aloof observer of subtle and understated interactions, Harmonium is certainly a domestic drama – but it is also something much darker, capturing the violence and vindictiveness latent in family structures with all the austere tension of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s oeuvre. The film is divided into two discrete halves (separated by eight years), in which repetitions and correspondences form a sort of structural ostinato. There is the recurring focus on mothers and on a particularly bright shade of scarlet (clothing, flowers, blood). The metronomic pulses of earlier scenes are re-echoed by the anxious, obsessive-compulsive counting of Akie in later ones. Two men of different generations hired to help in Toshio’s workshop – first Yasake, then Takashi (Taiga) – both unsettle the family’s rhythm with their presence. And the photographic image of four figures lying by a river will return, and be radically reworked, in the film’s second half.

“If you look closely,” Akie tells Yasake of the ‘beautiful’ red dress she has just made for her young daughter, “there are lots of imperfections in it.” Harmonium too invites us to look at the discordances deep in the fabric of a family’s surface symmetries.

Anticipation: It had us at Tadanobu Asano.

Enjoyment: Quietly tense examination of a family in slow freefall.

In Retrospect: Koji Fukada’s formal filmic rhythms are disrupted by narrative disharmonies.

© Anton Bitel