One of the year’s best Japanese films, Koji Fukada’s inquiry into the nature of sin, guilt, isolation and family can be hard to watch but is impossible to ignore.
Photo © 2016 FUCHI NI TATSU FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINEMAS / FILM MOVEMENT
Director: Koji Fukada
Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Kanji Furutachi and Mariko Tsutsui
Running time: 118 minutes
Screenplay: Koji Fukada
A Japanese family’s humdrum daily routine is fatefully upset by the arrival of a stranger from the father’s past in this slow-burning dramatic thriller.
“Tadanobu Asano’s malevolent stillness and sinister charisma make for one of cinema’s unforgettable villains.”
“The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children,” Shakespeare tells us, quoting scripture, in The Merchant of Venice. The message is delivered again in Koji Fukada’s harrowing new film Harmonium. It was the winner of the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and is one of TIFF’s strongest Japanese entries.
In Harmonium Fukada introduces us to a family and then sets in motion its collapse. As with his 2011 film Hospitalitie, he tells the story of an interloper moving in on a family and family-run business. However, where that film was comedic in tone, Harmonium casts a similar tale as tragedy. The film opens on a smugly contented suburban couple and their child: Toshio, his wife Akie and their precocious daughter Hotaru, who live in a small house with an adjoining metal shop. One day a stranger, the impeccably dressed Mr. Yasaka, appears at their door, explaining that he has just been released from prison.
Akie is mortified when Toshio hires Yasaka immediately as a shop assistant and offers him a spare room in which to live, but things start off well; he is polite, diligent in his work and quickly ingratiates himself with both mother and daughter. Yet even as Akie’s interest in Yasaka begins to stray toward the sexual, Toshio can only observe wordlessly and it becomes obvious that these two men share some dark past. There is something ominous in Yasaka’s presence, a malevolent stillness that unnerves even as it charms. Akie finally spurns Yasaka’s sexual advances and almost immediately a tragic accident is visited upon one of the family members. Yasaka then disappears.
The film’s second half picks up eight years later. The broken and desperate family—Toshio bristling with impotent rage, Akie hollowed out by grief and guilt—searches for Yasaka to find answers and presumably revenge. When a new assistant, Takashi, comes to work in the shop, he is revealed to have an unwitting connection to the Yasaka affair. From there the film builds to an almost unbearably intense and heartrending climax.
Harmonium is a study of sin and guilt, punishment and redemption. At the same time it is Fukada’s enquiry into the meaning of family and the fundamental loneliness of individuals obliged to exist in what the director describes as “an illusory construction which had once protected us, while smothering us at the same time.”
This is a bleak premise but the film is anything but. It is bracing to watch a filmmaker work at this level of control. He pins the viewer to their seat like a butterfly. We can only watch in stunned fascination. Mariko Tsutsui and Kanji Furutachi’s performances as Akie and Toshio are gut-wrenching while Tadanobu Asano’s Yasaka is unforgettable; his sinister charisma haunts the film even in his extended absence in the second half. Fukada bookends his film with a pair of images of the family in repose at the waterside, one image visually mirroring the other—yet the circumstances are terrifyingly different. The film’s Japanese title translates as “On the Brink” and that is where Fukada takes us: to a doomed and dizzying place where we can do nothing but stare into the abyss.
Harmonium is scheduled to screen at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre on
February 23. For more info, visit jccc.on.ca.