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Harmonium

Review:

Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) runs a metal workshop in his own garage. He lives with his devoutly christian wife Akié (Mariko Tsutsui), and one daughter named Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa) who is learning to play the harmonium. One day, an old friend of Toshio’s named Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano) shows up out-of-the-blue at their home. Toshio agrees to give him employment in his workshop and also allows him to live in the spare room in their house despite the fact that Akié has her misgivings, in particular about the latter part of the arrangement.

Despite her initial discomfort around the man, she soon thaws after he offers to give Hotaru harmonium lessons when the latter is scared off by her snappy instructor. When Hotaru frankly confesses that he went to prison for killing a man - an act which he claims to be trying to make amends for - Akié is disarmed by his unexpected honesty and remorse. Things start to get complicated when the pair begin to fall for each other, and a domino-like sequence of tragic events is put in motion.

Harmonium starts off in a slow, vaguely comedic manner but ultimately blossoms - over three distinct acts - into a disturbing, multilayered tragedy where each main protagonist is painted in shades of grey and layers of emotional complexity. Without giving too much away, the film’s many twists and turns take the characters into situations involving serious risks and moral dilemmas where there are never simple decisions to be made - but nonetheless when these decisions are made incorrectly they still play out with long-term consequences that are nothing short of horrific. Themes such as criminal history, criminal loyalties, remorse, revenge, infidelity, family ties and even subtle hints at paedophilia are on the menu here. It’s the cinematic equivalent of peeling an onion: the more layers you remove, the more you want to cry.

In contrast to the complex story he has woven, Kôji Fukada as director largely favours a straightforward shooting style throughout: natural lighting, lengthy static interior shots indoors and tracking shots outdoors. Nonetheless, he does manage to work in some subtle audiovisual devices to tell the story in a “show-don’t-tell manner”. When we see Toshio and Akié alone together for a dinner scene, it’s telling that they sit diagonally rather than directly across from each other. The strength of bonds between characters is regularly expressed in this manner, via their respective positioning within shots. The harmonium tune played by Hotaru at the start of the film becomes a recurring motif, and yields a particularly effective sequence when it is sung by one character - and then continued on the soundtrack even after he visibly stops humming, a touch that adds to the resonance of what ensues immediately afterwards.

The performances are impressive without going over the top, in particular Mariko Tsutsui as Akié, who navigates her character’s conflicted feelings about the complex unfolding situations with a shattering believability. On the whole it’s a very quiet and studied film, thus making the outbursts of emotional intensity - when they come - all the more harrowing.

Harmonium certainly isn’t a film for cheering the viewer up, and some might regret witnessing the story’s darker outcomes. It’s not one for those taken to genre pigeonholing either. As food for thought, however, it’s certainly one of the more rewarding and twist-heavy films out there.

Runtime: 120 mins

Dir: Kôji Fukada

Script: Kôji Fukada

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

Rating: ☆☆☆☆

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