At the start of Kôji Fukada’s Harmonium, a young daughter named Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa) sits at the titular instrument (a piano-like reed organ) to tentatively strike the notes of a tune she is trying to perfect. She sets a metronome ticking to keep time, before she is called away by her mother, Akié (Mariko Tsutsui). The metronome keeps ticking along after she leaves, as the title credits appear within the space of its beats. In this way, it sets the pace of a film which is at first very much concerned with the rhythms of this humble family.
They live a quiet life. Akié and her husband Toshio (Kanji Furutacho) rarely seem to speak, crossing paths mainly at mealtimes and when work demands. Toshio is an insular character, often isolated from his family while he’s in the machine shop he operates from his garage. Here the metronome’s tick gives way to the industrial clamour of metal presses and the crackle of welding torches.
Harmonium drifts along like this for a while, following Akié’s domestic life, Hotaru’s musical endeavours and Toshio’s work. Even after an old friend of Fukio’s, a mysterious man called Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), turns up unexpectedly, he slips into their somnambulant lifestyle with ease. Toshio still stays in his shop, except he now has a co-worker, and meal-times are still the rigid, quiet affairs they were, except they have another diner at the table.
The film could easily be split into ‘Before’ and ‘After’ chapters, so precisely is it split in half by a tragic event which changes the family forever. Up to that point, Kôji Fukada’s imprint is barely noticeable on the film. Scenes are shot with a functionality that emphasises the family’s own detachment. The second half is looser, as Akié’s daydreams are allowed to intrude upon the image and the boundary between the real and the imagined is distorted. This culminates in an ending which is striking both for its visual elegance and its final, heart-breaking digression from reality.
That mysterious stranger, Yasaka, is completely responsible for the change in tone. His appearance upsets the stifling balance that the family have struck. At first, the metronome that Hotaru sets ticking is a symbol of the harmony that the film’s title so clearly alludes to. But after Yasaka’s arrival, the instrument’s swinging arm is more indicative of the struggle to find the balance that the family – and Akié in particular – once took for granted.
Fukada’s patient script means that Yasaka is intentionally difficult to grasp as a character, as he insinuates himself into the life of his old friend. At first, he is a symbol of liberation, as he stirs new feelings in Akié, who has been stuck in a lifeless marriage, and as he gets closer to Hotaru, who is uninspired by the harmonium until Yasaka teaches her a new tune to play.
The metronome swings one way, then the other. Positions are reversed. Yasaka, an ex-convict, becomes the freest of all the characters, while the rest of them retreat even further. After the incident, some are captive more literally than others. Toshio suggests to his wife that their circumstances are a punishment, much to her horror. None of them have anywhere or anyone they can turn to.
This subtle dissection of human feeling and morality drives Harmonium gradually forward. Its unassuming tone means that the tension builds painfully slowly at first, until it is released in several short bursts of action. The family unit is here exposed as a fraud, nothing more than a means of finding some sort of harmony, but at what price? Passion is suffocated in an effort to maintain this balance. Yasaka catalyses a recovery of this lost feeling, but at the expense of their superficial sense of harmony. It is either one way, or another way, but not both at once. It is a pessimistic outlook and one that is never really challenged in the film, which is perhaps its one greatest disappointment.
Original Title: Fuchi ni tatsu Country: Japan, France Language: Japanese Year: 2016 Director: Kôji Fukada Writer: Kôji Fukada Starring: Mariko Tsutsui, Tadanobu Asano, Kanji Furutachi, Momone Shinokawa Runtime: 120 minutes