Harmonium is a film of two halves. The first, a slow burn tension flick: a family’s life is disturbed by the emergence of a figure from the husband’s past. Who is this mysterious dude? Why is he now living in their house? Is he plotting something; he certainly seems shifty. Then at the moment of revelation the dynamic is switched, all of a sudden the film reformulates from the ground up. What if the rot isn’t coming from inside the house? What if it was in there all along?
Tadanobu Asano, who we saw earlier this year in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, plays Yasaka, the interloper. He wanders into the film with this awkward wide footed gait, dressed perpetually in a bargain-basement plain-white dress shirt. He says he’s been ‘out’ for almost a month now and is struggling to find work. Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) operates out of a workshop in the family garage and takes him on for some extra help. He struggles to explain to his wife Akié (Mariko Tsutsui) why they’ve picked up a lodger at such short notice, especially one she’s never met before.
Their daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa) struggles to learn the music for her harmonium recital, Yasaka starts to tutor her in a piece he was taught as a child. It’s astonishing how adaptable family life is, we see everything reform around this element, only the camera seems to notice his poison. He lingers in these scenes long after they finish, as this a patient editor waits for him to be done. He don’t seem to talk much and when he finally gets to explaining himself he does so with the restraint of someone whose had years to hone his delivery. It’s in the moments afterwards, where we can glimpse something running across his face.
Maybe his status as an interlocutor would be more troubling if everything else was the portrait of a prefect matrimony. From the kitchen table over which the two partners snipe at each other, usually about Akié’s religion. We sense this unease. In their divided house we see the spaces they’ve carved off for themselves. In the office they share an imposing mound of files splits the space, the frame, their relationship in two. Hotaru retreats to the harmonium, which director Kôji Fukada frames lovingly, perfectly. His camera, which compresses all these spaces into a claustrophobic mess, somehow manages to make this misshapen instrument appear exactly the right size.
The precision and balance in the photography of course must belie the imbalance in this relationship, which is fed to us at a trickle. We get that they’re the typical odd couple, and of course we’re trained to think that charming. Furutachi plays such a skillful game on the screen. His character slowly tilting their hand towards the camera, by the end you’re seeing who he truly is and it’s not surprising, you just wonder how it never became obvious any earlier. Tsutsui, who has the job of just giving, setting he co-stars up, receiving what they give her, takes this role as her own. She commands the screen, when it comes her character’s turn to act, instead of just listen, she plays it with pure invention.
That comes towards the end though, and i ain’t really gonna say what comes around then, because from the looks of it everything that happens once we hit the midpoint of this flick has been kept pretty tightly under wraps. That said, I ain’t read no other reviews so I’m not sure what they’re saying. That’s where the film hits the bonus zone, that’s where all the delicacy and tact in Fukada’s crafting of the tale pays off.
It engages with the situation it puts the characters into in a way that doesn’t feel harmful or exploitative or gross, and believe me it could have been a million kinds of hell which I’d roast any movie for handling poorly. And yet it doesn’t, albeit with one exception that comes off as a little too much, it finds its way eventually to this place of truth and understanding. If anyone out there seen this joint, please comment with your opinion because I need someone to discuss this with. It’s aided supremely by Taiga, who shows up in a role towards the end there, who enters this situation with that wide eyed and innocent thing he does so well.
It weird the sorts of dramas that manage to pull a physical reaction out of me, last year it was Julieta. When she was clipped by a car at a crosswalk all the muscles in my body contracted. That happened again in this film, a moment which again I’m not gonna talk about. Other moments had me with my hands over my mouth, all ‘holy shit’ at what was being thrown up there on the screen.
It’s a total firecracker, though it don’t look or sound like one. It starts with this mysterious malevolent figure appearing on a doorstep like a cartoon villain, complete with his own distinct uniform. Then it goes from that conspicuous start to explore family and faith and love. And there’s this moment later on when they’re talking and you realise something and it just quakes silent.
Oh, I got goosebumps all over again.
If anyone actually has the score for the harmonium music they play shoot it over my way. I know it’s wrong but I just wanna learn.
Harmonium is currently screening in UK cinemas