It’s that time of year again when every blogger is weighing up their ‘best of’ lists and scrolling through others to find out what they’ve missed. That’s why I leave my lists to the very end of December; I know there’s always more great stuff to be found. I’m never going to be able to catchy every worthy film, no amateur reviewer is, but it’s the effort that counts, because it uncovers hidden gems like this one.
Harmonium is a tragedy in miniature, impressively written and directed by Kōji Fukada. It won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and despite that honour it had only a very limited cinema release in the UK, hence explaining why I missed it.
It concerns a family whose discord is evident from the very first scene: Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and her daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa) say grace at the dinner table as the man of the house Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) carries on eating. Conflicting worldviews are established without a single word passing between husband and wife. It reminds me of the opening of Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, in which a shattered window foreshadowed the widening cracks in a seemingly content relationship. Here the mood is just as tense underneath the surface.
We find out that the girl, Hotaru, plays the instrument of the title and is going to appear in a concert. In order to perform, her hands must be able to play in harmony. Likewise, in order to perform the function of a working family, this trio must harmonise. Are they able to do so?
Well, it’s certainly thrown into doubt when a friend of Toshio’s, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), a man with a shady past, comes to the door seeking a job and lodging. Toshio obliges his friend, and we sense that this is not just because of the Japanese custom of politeness, but because he is atoning for a sin of his own from the past.
Yasaka seems to be a man of harmony: he is calm, collected, and is always wearing the same white shirt tucked into black trousers – he’s a picture of elegance and decorum. Yet he moves stiffly, as if weighed down by some burden, which indeed he is. And this burden will latch itself onto Toshio and his family, plunging them deep into a river of discontent, in which they might well suffocate.
Kōji Fukada directs his melodramatic story with a poise as careful as Yasaka’s, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting audience and shock them. He’s no Hitchcock – suspense is limited to one or two long tracking shots. But he maintains a constant gnawing sense of unease, one that remains right up until the tragic-farcical conclusion. And it’s to his credit that this unease sticks around hours after the credits have finished rolling.
Biblical themes of Catholic guilt and eternal damnation are dealt with, yet never heavy-handedly, and the ensemble cast convincingly portrays a dissatisfaction with life’s vicissitudes that manages to universalise these religious underpinnings. In this way, it reminds me of Leviathan, a film which also showed how momentary slips from the past, a.k.a. sins, can bubble up to deny redemption.
Harmonium isn’t as powerful as that film; it doesn’t have the same self-righteous anger. Yet it works very well as a study of one family who live as if they’re playing a harmonium with hands out of sync, and tragically it seems they always will be.