Koji Fukada’s “Harmonium” examines the consequences of the past in extreme fashion

A seemingly regular family gets an unexpected visitor

The Suzuokas are a seemingly regular family of three, living in the suburbs. The husband, Toshio, runs a small metalworking industry in the basement of the house they live in. His wife, Fumie is a homemaker and their little daughter, Hotaru goes to the elementary school and takes harmonium lessons.

However, when Kusataro Yasaka, an old acquaintance of Kanji arrives unexpectedly to their house, after he is released from prison, everything changes. Kanji seems to have a past life that Mariko did not know of, and a secret he shares with Kusataro that makes him invite him to stay at their house. Mariko is infuriated in the beginning, but as time passes and Kusataro reveals the reasons he went to prison, he takes a liking to him. The same applies to Hotaru, as Kusataro also knows how to play the harmonium and begins teaching her. Eventually, he and Fumie start becoming more than friends, in an act that has terrible repercussions for everybody. The film then takes a leap forward, some years after the incident

 

The underlying tension is palpable

Koji Fukada directs, pens and edits a film that soars with tension, despite the calmness that seems to emit from the characters. However, it eventually erupts from all of them. In that fashion, Toshio is tormented by his past and Kusataro’s presence only makes the sentiment worse. His eruption, though, comes later, after the horrific event, in the form of a slap. Mariko is sexually repressed and her eruption comes when she starts having feelings for Kusataro. He is actually infuriated and jealous of the fact that he went to prison and Toshio stayed behind, managing to have a business and a family. His first eruption comes when the family makes a trip to the river, but he manages to contain it. The second one though, is horrific, in an act that makes the tension even more intense in the second part.

 

No way out

Fukada’s characters are slaves to their past, and they do not seem to be able to get away from it, no matter how hard they try. This characteristic shapes their personalities and leads them to despair, and subsequently, violence. The fact that some secrets are revealed offers no sense of relief, as it actually makes things worse.

 

Despair mirrored in the technical department

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This sense of despair is also mirrored in the technical department. Kenichi Negishi’s cinematography portrays the central setting of the house in claustrophobic fashion. However, even when the setting becomes bucolic, this sense remains. I also enjoyed the fact that Kusataro’s state and how people perceive him is depicted in the colors of clothes he wears. All white, when he is an ex-murderer. Black and white when he tries to cope with everybody and being regular. A splash of red, in the sole occasion he is happy. Fukada’s editing keeps the film sharp and moving relentlessly forward towards catastrophe. Hiroyuki Onogawa’s music is subtle, but heightens this sense, with most sounds coming from a harmonium.

 

Great acting

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All three of the protagonists are great in their parts. Tadanobu Asano is magnificent as Kusataro, as he emits danger in a subtle but intense fashion. Mariko Tsutsui is great as Fumie, exemplifying her repression, while the scenes where she reluctantly flirts are impressive. Kanji Furutachi as Toshio wonderfully presents the self-contradictory nature of his character, who tries to hide so many things inside of him. The slapping scene is his highlight, despite being so brief.

 

“Harmonium” is another great piece of Japanese cinema, and the Jury Prize it received from the Un Certain Regard section at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, well reserved.

The film is part of the impressive selection of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival, that will be on November 3-12.

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