In Koji Fukada’s Harmonium, the fragile harmony of a Japanese family is shattered by the arrival of a mysterious stranger.
On the Edgeby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
An ordinary Japanese family is having breakfast in the kitchen of their flat. Father Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) has a small metalwork shop below, mother Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) is a Christian and a housewife, and cute little daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa) is learning to play the harmonium. Their domestic harmony, such as it is, suddenly lurches into unknown territory when a mysterious stranger, conspicuously dressed in a white shirt buttoned to the neck and formal black trousers, appears at the door of Toshio’s workshop. Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano) is an old friend, Toshio says, and he offers him the job he’s looking for, but Yasaka’s withdrawn, indefinably sinister demeanour has a subtly unsettling effect. He moves into the spare room and quickly ingratiates himself with the family, teaching Hotaru to play a new tune and paying Akie the attention that she doesn’t get from her emotionally unavailable husband.
But the breakfast scene that opens the film also signposts something strange lurking beneath the surface. In the background, Hotaru’s metronome is ticking. Akie says grace but only she and Hotaru observe it; Toshio ignores her and carries on eating. The conversation between mother and daughter lingers on mother spiders that allow their children to eat them. The fragility of their family life is thrown into relief by Yasaka’s presence. He alarms Akie by confessing to her that he murdered someone and has just been released from prison. He and Toshio have a secret understanding. Though apparently behaving as a polite model guest, Yasaka seems to have the motive of deliberately causing a rift that could destroy his hosts.
Midway through the film there’s a shocking incident and the action abruptly skips forward eight years. Hotaru has grown up (Kana Mahiro). Yasaka is no longer there and Toshio now has an apprentice, an open-faced, enthusiastic young man, Takashi (Taiga). Their life has changed in ways they could not have imagined. But again, all is not as it seems as Takashi unwittingly reveals some startling information that in his naivety he does not realise the significance of. It leads to a sudden, heartrending tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.
Director Koji Fukada (Au Revoir l’Été) starts by framing the shots as in a typical Japanese family drama, but it’s deceptive – in the second part of the film, he opens it out into stunning, wild countryside that’s a backdrop to ramped-up emotions. Harmonium is also a companion piece to his black comedy Hospitalité, which also featured Furutachi – but in contrast it’s a disturbing, dark, heartbreaking drama with merciless twists that give no easy answers to complex questions of forgiveness and redemption, and how relationships may be based on truth or lies. Its title in Japanese is Fuchi ni Tatsu, which translates as “on the brink” or “standing on the edge” – which is where the protagonists come to realise they are. It’s a film which stays with you long after it is over.
Harmonium won the Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival and is released on 5 May 2017 in the UK.