I find Japanese films to review all over the place. Some are old favourites I already had in my collection, others are from the growing catalogue of cult and classic films from niche Blu-Ray publishers, and some just happen to pop up on streaming services like Netflix or Sky Cinema. It’s the latter where I’m most likely to see something unusual that I might otherwise have missed – I’m probably going to pick up every Kinji Fukasaku gangster movie I can find, but won’t necessarily see the latest contemporary drama from a director I’ve never encountered. That’s how I ended up watching Harmonium (2016) by Koji Fukada. A bleak study of human misery, it follows the family of metalworker Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) as an old acquaintance re-enters his life after coming out of prison. Inevitably, this disrupts the family’s already fragile existence and a series of terrible events ensue.
Yasaka, the ex-con played by Tadanobu Asano (Ichi the Killer, Thor), is suitably unsettling. Asano is almost unrecognisable with a sketchy haircut and his white shirt buttoned up to his neck, but then, it’s easy to make anyone seem sinister when wearing a fully-buttoned up shirt with no tie. Other touches are more subtle, and suggest Fukada does have a real eye for character; I particularly liked the inclusion of Furutachi’s Toshio pausing to take his glasses on and off while slipping on a shirt. The film is fairly rich in those sorts of mundane details.
As the film opens, Toshio barely acknowledges his wife Akie (Mariko Tsutsui). He has a little more time for his harmonium-playing daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa), who lends the film its English-language title – the Japanese title, 淵に立つ or Fuchi ni Tatsu, roughly translates to “Standing in the Abyss”, which may be more appropriate. Given their already strained relationship, it feels inevitable that the sudden, intrusive presence of Yasaka will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I was immediately suspicious that Akie would be drawn into an adulterous relationship with Yasaka given the lack of attention from Toshio, and though the seeds of that are planted early on, the film actually becomes something quite different and much darker. There are numerous narrative twists and turns, but this is not a mystery film with a secret to unlock. Aside from one shocking event roughly halfway through the running time, it is more a series of personal revelations from the different characters.
From the plot to the production, Harmonium is unrelentingly bleak. I wouldn’t want to suggest it looks cheap, as I assume this was a deliberate decision, but it was one of the more ugly, drab films I’ve seen come out of contemporary Japanese cinema. The grey, perpetually overcast look is a reflection of the grim, human misery of the characters. Sadly, this just seems to result in Harmonium being a visually unappealing film. It might survive this if other aspects were stronger, working as a character and acting showcase, but although everyone puts in fine work no one really stands out. For every subtle moment, there is counterbalancing blunt force, such as Akie’s ‘out damn spot’ handwashing in the second half, and as the film progresses character motivations become increasingly opaque, especially in the case of Takashi (Taiga), the young apprentice in Toshio’s metal shop.
Sometimes, dabbling in whatever film streaming chooses to serve up can have excellent results – it’s what introduced me to Hirokazu Koreeda via After the Storm. Despite being another Cannes contender in the Un Certain Regard category, I don’t understand the effulgent praise Harmonium has received. Though by no means a bad film, it’s nevertheless a difficult watch; miserable, drab, and capped with a frustratingly ambiguous ending.
Harmonium / 淵に立つ
Director: Koji Fukada
Japanese Release Date: 8th October 2016
Version Watched: 118 min (Sky Cinema)