Las Palmas Film Festival Review: Kôji Fukada’s ‘Harmonium’

At the 2017 Las Palmas Film Festival, the Audience Award went to Kôji Fukada’s Harmonium (the 2016 Cannes winner of Un Certain Regard), a dark yet approachable choice. The film is an ex-con revenge story as much as a home invasion movie or a middle-class, Japanese family drama. The camera focuses on a supposedly happy family that includes an absent father, Toshio (who runs a metal workshop from home), a Protestant mother, Akié, and their adorable little girl, Hotaru. Toshio decides to give work to a mysterious, old acquaintance, Yasaka, who appears out of the blue. While there’s reticent and digging reasons behind this sudden decision, Toshio’s family embraces the presence of the stranger into their home by including him in their routine.

When a stranger walks into a home, the prospects aren’t good. In Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, all the members of a household are disturbed by the arrival of The Stranger, and his departure affects them as much as his mysterious insertion into the home. In terms of storytelling, the motif of the “mysterious stranger” has always functioned as a stimulus, using the character to incite change in others. He or she brings out traits that people repress by circumstance or society. Even though this plot device might indicate the path of a thriller, Fukada’s approach bears more finesse and focuses on the powerful reflection of the family members. Yet the theme is developed differently in Harmonium, as Yasaka’s intrusion inspires latent curiosity. Tadanobu Asano incarnates a visitor who comes from nowhere and seems to lack connections to the outer world. However, unlike The Stranger’s storyline, Yasaka is lodged due to a common, somber past that he shares with Toshio.

At first guarded, Akié changes her mood and warms up to the guest as she discovers he plays the harmonium, the instrument her daughter studies. In fact, the instrument represents a metaphor for the consonance that is seeded within this family. There are hints about the (dis)harmony of the family even from the beginning, as director Fukada begins with an establishing shot of their breakfast routine. Apart from the beauty of depicting little habits, the taciturn father’s lack of participation and affection stands out as well. Even more, the couple seems to differ even in little meaningless debates. The family’s new lodger seems to behold a sympathetic feeling that the apparently happy family lacks: he instantly befriends the little girl, offers to train her and contributes to the house’s chores. In a way, the intruder’s influence is subtle, with the purpose of replacing the father, appearing as a better fit for the family.

The tuneful music that accompanies the narrative (and repeats obsessively) turns into a constant reminder of the dissonance at the core of the family drama. The roots of the family’s destruction stand in the premonitory metronome that contributes to the film’s slow tension. Furthermore, there’s repetitive shots with small differences in composition. In this regard, the family breakfast scene is mirrored upon Yasaka’s arrival and inclusion in the domestic environment, where he doesn’t even feel unsuitable. He occupies a previously unused spot yet draws attention to his exaggerated appetite. The camera movements are slow, describing the quiet neighbourhood while revisiting familiar places.

Structurally speaking, Harmonium is parted in two segments, the first one marked by Yasaka’s physical arrival, and the second one taking place eight years later, as the man’s presence is still felt like a constant threat, always on the verge to cause further miseries. In fact, guilt is the stable element that connects the film’s sections, as this feeling originally pushes Toshio to accept Yasaka into his home, and the couple later feels guilty about the consequences of the intruder’s visit. Despite these several linking elements, the differences are significant. The narrative flows from a rigid, highly planned section to a psychological thriller with too much symbolic imagery. While the dramatic tension increases and the characters’ development is worthy, it feels as if the plot reaches a turning point that Fukada doesn’t know how to handle. To add to this feeling, an implausible visitor enter the picture. In the first part, the colour coding guides the viewer with a welcomed minimalism, while the allegorical, Shakespearean conclusion seems a bit out of place. In a way, Yasaka is not only a catalyst for the family’s miseries, but also an embodiment of their frustrations and repressed desires.

The film’s strength is in the remarkable acting and emotional dynamics. Akié changes from a prude housewife who seeks the thrills of infatuation with the stranger to a stoic, overprotective mother. The shadows of her mistakes lead to phobic behavior in regard to any outside element. However, less visible, but just as valuable, is the husband’s transformation. His misery is muted, and he channels his pain for practical purposes like searching for an alleged culprit. If Toshio is silenced by Yasaka’s intimidating nature and possible blackmail in the beginning, his aloof attitude later on is rooted in unspoken discontent and pure bitterness.

Whereas Michael Haneke displays extreme sadism in Funny Games, Harmonium follows a similar pattern of suspense by teasing the audience and never actually showing the acts of violence. Fukada knows that the actions are repulsive, yet they inspire thrilling emotions. More representative of a classical Greek tragedy or Dostoyevsky’s tormented protagonists, Harmonium depicts a family like a living organism that needs to be nurtured and protected from outer dangers. The director follows the long tradition of Japanese family dramas preexistent in the works of Yasujiro Ozu or Hirokazu Koreeda (who also depicts a family dealing with grief after a tragedy in Still Walking), yet his merit comes in the grey zones that he approaches with incredible nuances. At some point, Akié understands and acts as if the end to her tribulations is within herself. She compulsively washes her hands and slaps herself in a sort of self-imposed punishment for her recklessness. It’s the demons within that Kôji Fukada astutely brings to life in Harmonium.

Andreea Pătru (@andreeapatru89) is a Romanian film critic and programmer who resides in Spain. Apart from taking part in the 2015 Locarno Critics Academy and Talents Sarajevo in 2016, she has written for Indiewire, Desistfilm and collaborated with Romanian outlets such as Film Reporter, Observator Cultural and FILM magazine. Andreea is a programmer at Tenerife Shorts – Tenerife International Short Film Festival and has previously worked for Romanian Film Promotion.