“When it comes to the faithful, there are monkeys and cats.” the recently released Yasaka explains to Akié, as they walk along an urban river, in a quiet part of Japan.
The ex-con talks about the difference between clinging to the back of beliefs yourself, or being picked up in a more passive sense. His manners are almost perfect. His reflections having the mark of a man who has discussed them in silence for many years, yet obviously, we still want to know why he was put away.
It’s obvious that he’s still locked up somewhere however. It’s in his gait. Like a man too humble to even despise the plank he walks along –apart from the rare times that he escapes the limbo– where he’s in the midst of adapting back to a non-institutionalised life.
The reason that Yasaka approaches this lower middle-class family in particular goes unsaid in the beginning, dancing somewhere between forced joviality and unanswered questions. This being where Harmonium shows its candour in both respecting and critiquing traditional Japanese etiquette at the same time.
So we have the quiet ex-con character: he who may or may not be rehabilitated. His personality is formed by the marriage of man-made institution and primordial freedom, where this particular realisation uses a calm, mostly sterile rhythm. This choice of pacing works well with the film’s subject matter, since there is an oppression created by this atmosphere, only freed in rare instances, providing these almost surreal breaches of code.
Harmonium is your basic reconnaissance of grief, and only settles when it has eradicated every fascia of formality. It’s the danger that can be invited by over-politeness, where we’re almost as afraid of deviations from the status quo as we are of more clichéd fears. In Yasaka (Tadanobu Satō), we have a stained Solomon figure, both wise and discrete, but still lost inside the ‘oppress or be oppressed’ mindset, that his past life inside the Yakuza has taught him.
We know that there is some type of debt or previous bond between him and Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), since he lets Yasaka move into his home, and gives him a job in his metalwork business with barely any question— much to his wife’s bemusement! Here, Akié (Mariko Tsutsui), and their 10-year-old daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa), are introduced to the über civil Yasaka with little to no explanation.
This quadrilateral dynamic was also used to great effect in Dennis Potter’s Brimstone & Treacle (1982), where an English family become enamoured with the charm and swagger of a young stranger (Sting). Harmonium is a calmer straightjacket however, and a poem about wolves and sheep from a more visceral perspective, playing with the dynamics of attraction, asking the same hindsight question: who invited who, in the beginning?
Fukada’s work enjoys hunting through the miasma of reality, whether it’s to reveal the layered ignorance of multi-cultural liaisons in an earlier work like his Hospitalité (2010), or Harmonium, where the results are more harrowing, albeit turned down to a decibel barely audible.
Peaceful Japanese culture is cross-pollinated with the underworld of human nature in this film, resulting in a narrative that has a distinct cultural background to bounce off, like a pissed priest arguing with his dry counterpart. If Takashi Miike is at one end of the cinematic spectrum, where many of us first saw Tadanobu Satō as the sadomasochistic henchman in Ichi The Killer (2001) –showing us our inner conflicts via psychotic flesh on-screen– Kôji Fukada finds a more serene route in Harmonium, welcoming us to this world absent of emotion, and anti-song-in-stalemate, where perhaps Yasaka is called upon by this void.
Which category of film should Harmonium be placed in? The award it won at the Festival de Cannes 2016 offers one reverse explanation, in the form of the Jury Prize, where it was selected for the ‘Un Certain Regard Award’. This makes sense, since in French culture this phrase means ‘from another point of view’.
This being what we’re offered in this film: the option to become alien voyeurs in an unsolvable world, or, to find charm in an unbastardised version of it.
Dir: Kôji Fukada
Scr: Kôji Fukada
Cast: Mariko Tsutsui, Tadanobu Satō, Kanji Furutachi, Momone Shinokawa
Prd: Kôichirô Fukushima
DOP: Kenichi Negishi
Music: Hiroyuki Onogawa
Run time: 118 minutes
Harmonium is in cinemas now.