[Film Review] Harmonium, by Kōji Fukada

I’ve always been a fan of Japanese cinema, whether its the animations of studio Ghibli (bright stars of my childhood), the much darker animes like Akira that I watched as a teenager, or the clever social criticism of Hara-Kiri and the grand scale of Kurosawa’s epics like Kagemusha that came to me later on. Thankfully, there is always more to discover. I live in a country fascinated with Japan and its cinematic output, so much so that the large cinema chain I went to this week was showing more Japanese films (two) than American or even French films (one of each). Harmonium most likely won’t retain a high place in my personal pantheon of Japanese cinema, but I’m very curious to see director Kōji Fukada’s previous films, for in his work there is the promise of much challenging filmmaking that I am now keen to discover.

Harmonium tells the story of Toshio and his wife Akié, who live a quiet suburban life. He is a metalworker, operating from a workshop out front of the building they live in. She helps him in the office and takes care of their young daughter Hoteru, who plays the harmonium. They are distant, together almost just by habit, with no words of love between them. Then enters Mr. Yasaka. A tall wooden figure dressed in a pressed white shirt, he is fresh out of prison. They have history, so Toisho allows him to move in and assist in the workshop, to his wife’s initial discomfort.

From that point begins a troubling and often awkward drama, full of suppressed fear, jealousy and desire. Yasaka becomes part of the family, teaching Hoteru the harmonium and gradually winning Akéi over, but long-hidden secrets are also playing catch up. Violence ensues, as if inevitable. Though somehow expected, it is no less difficult for its victims to understand. They are deeply traumatized by it. The whole second half of the film deals with the tragic aftermath of Yasaka’s crimes. The broken, yet somehow resilient family carries on with life, buoyed by ever so slim chances of understanding what happened to them, and why.

In a typically Japanese tradition (Ozu comes to mind) the film is mostly a succession of static shots. Even when the camera moves, perspective is maintained, characters moving along with it to occupy the same amount of space in the frame all along the shot. Nevertheless, Fukada doesn’t go as far as Ozu’s complete disregard of – or should I say emancipatory attitude to – classic Hollywood techniques like the 180° rule. Spatial relationships are rather more conventionally presented here, the style slightly less disconcerting. What struck me most about the film though is its careful attention to sound. With characters and a plot such as these, there are plenty of uncomfortable silences, but they are filled with the slurping of soup and clanging of spoons; the whir and burh and chunk-a-chunk-ing of machines; the squelching sound of hands regularly and lengthily being soaped. These sounds are so constant that they in effect seem to replace dialogue, telling us as much about the characters as their words. Toisho’s terse behavior in the whole first part of the film is aided by the constant rumble of his workshop, while in the second section he almost has to fight against it to be heard properly, ordering his assistant to shut down a machine to ensure his full attention. Mr. Yasaka, on the other hand, operates more frequently in the ambient noise of nature and the strangely empty suburbs, or to the tune of the titular harmonium, an instrument of childish sounds, which here turn out really creepy.

These affects combined may turn some people off, and in fact, I spotted at least two people leaving the cinema barely halfway through the screening. I instead found the overall effect was strangely hypnotic, captivating. I did feel on the verge of boredom at several points, but the dialogue would suddenly pick up, in one of Yasaka’s confessions or outbursts, or the film tip from apparently perfect realism into a more oneiric style – the beautiful, surprising underwater scene at the end; the use of red as a fateful colour – so that tension was very effectively raised, sometimes even achieving a degree of horror. This may be a bleak film, and a difficult watch, but there is no doubt it is an intriguing experience, providing me with images and sounds that linger in my mind.