Harmonium 深田晃司 Dir: Koji Fukada (2016)

Harmonium  harmonium-film-poster 

深田晃司 「Fuchi ni Tatsu

Release Date: October 10th, 2016

Running Time: 118 mins.

Director: Koji Fukada

Writer: Koji Fukada

Starring: Mariko Tsutsui, Tadanobu Asano, Kanji Furutachi, Taiga, Takahiro Miura, Momone Shinokawa,

IMDB   Website

Koji Fukada’s Harmonium took the Jury Prize at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and for good reason because it shows a director in precise control of his material. Story-wise, it follows in the footsteps of his debut feature Hospitalite (2011) wherein a stranger enters the lives of a family and disrupts things. While Fukada’s earlier title was light-hearted and poked fun at the social mores of Japan, this film is harsher with only a few dashes of hope beaming down in the final scenes.

Taking the lead is experienced thesp Kanji Futurachi, a familiar face from Fukada’s earlier films like Au Revoir l’ete (2015) and Human Comedy Tokyo (2012) and, crucially, Hospitalite (2011) where he was the stranger that forced a revolution on a family. In a role reversal he is the patriarch and a victim of sorts here as he plays Toshio, the owner of a small factory in the suburbs of some city or other. No location is given. It’s a nondescript and quiet place where he lives a quiet existence with his church-going wife Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and their daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa). It is she who plays the titular harmonium that gives the film’s soundtrack a funereal sense.

Harmonium Film Image

Right from the get-go we see they are a mismatched bunch and wonder what Akie saw in Toshio. He silently goes about his day at the factory ignoring wife and daughter, and in numerous breakfast scenes recorded in long takes, he eats his food at the dinner table while reading the newspaper leaving Hotaru and Akie to have the conversations. Toshio does show some affection to Hotaru who is practising for a performance at her church but Akie gets the cold shoulder unless she does accounting for his business. He doesn’t look at his wife and she goes about her duties loyally in this chilly atmosphere.

Disruption comes in the form of Toshio’s old-friend Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano) who appears unannounced at workshop wearing black trousers and a white shirt and carrying a bag. Yasaka has no family and no job and no real place to stay. Initial greetings are frosty between the two but Toshio plays the host for some unknown reason, hiring this old acquaintance and letting him stay without consulting his wife. Akie is concerned by this new presence, an excessively formal and disciplined man who joylessly goes about his day in a highly self-controlled way and only shows some emotions when he wakes screaming from nightmares.

Considering we have Tadanobu Asano playing Yasaka, it is totally fair for Akie to be concerned and the audience to suspect something will happen. For much of the film, despite some outbursts, his presence is open to interpretation but fans of Asano will be familiar with the fact that the man can do smouldering rage (Bright Future) as well as out-and-out psychopathy (Ichi the Killer). He also does slackers with rocket arms (Survive Style 5+) but his presence here is more menacing as he is clearly sincerely troubled by his past and his body-language and words show formidable restraint. Fukada also makes us suspicious of what will happen with clinical camerawork. Again, long takes let us see the characters interact and Yasaka is stiff, false and observant of mother and daughter. When he is out and about he sometimes bumps into Hotaru and we notice that the camera stalks Hotaru at a lower level, following close behind her like a predator, the camera on a dolly. He hovers near Akie and enjoys her company.

However, something unexpected happens. Akie warms to the man who shows genuine affection and respect and even bonds with Hotaru over her harmonium practising and church-going. The breakfast sequences take on more emotions with Yasaka present and life at home begins to pick up for the woman who feels new-found attention. He then tells her a secret as to why he is the way he is. This sequence, in a restaurant, features a slow zoom, the ambient noise dropping. Just Asano’s deep voice and concentrated gaze. We get sucked in. Cut to Akie who is also moved. She feels a deeper, possibly religious-based connection, that she can save him. Their orbits drift ever closer though she resists out of wifely duty, just as Toshio gets suspicious. We find out that Toshio owes Yasaka a debt and the man might be back to collect. A final act of resistance on Akie’s part sparks a tragedy that cleaves the film in two.

This is where Mariko Tsutsui steals the film from her co-stars as she visibly ages thanks to her restricting her physical movements, her body closing in on itself, and through the process of make-up and hair-dye. A haunted and sad look enters her face although she reveals manic rage when her loved ones are threatened. Kanji Furutachi is now a man ruing his mistake and it takes the arrival of another character played by Taiga (also a returnee from earlier Fukada films) to reveal just why Yasaka was angry with Toshio and how much the man hid from his wife.

The ending is tragic and yet beautiful and the build up with its excruciating dinner-table moments and gliding shots up and down streets following people who really aren’t that well-adjusted is the perfect lead-up. After all of the sullen anger and unbearable tension, we get moments most heartbreaking, especially when Hotaru and Akie communicate wordlessly as they try and connect despite difficulties. The final sequence is a near-death experience where Toshio scrambles back to life as his family is put at risk. It has an added animated flourish that is beautiful. There is no closure for anyone but the hint of a miracle as lights from heaven guide characters back to safety. As Toshio basks in this fading glow there is the hope that this fractured family can patch things up. Sometimes, hope is all we have and sometimes that is enough to give us the courage to move forward. We just have to believe.

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