Harmonium

 

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A subtle family drama from Japan that turns into something else.

 
Harmonium
 

If ever there was a film that falls unexpectedly into two decidedly contrasted parts, this is it. A Japanese movie written and directed by Fukada Koji, Harmonium starts off as a very telling portrait of a marriage that subtly hints at what may lie beneath the surface. The mother, Aki (Tsutsui Mariko), is the central figure. She may have a husband, Toshio (Furutachi Kanji), who does not share her deep faith (she is a Protestant and the family sits down to breakfast with a prayer), but the fact that their ten-year-old daughter, Hotaru (Shinokawa Momone), plays the harmonium and is practising it to participate in a concert seems to be a symbol of harmony in the home.

 

However, the enigmatic facade that is the politeness of the Japanese, can conceal much that is felt but not expressed (the phrase "I'm sorry" keeps cropping up here, whether sincere or not). The fact that the young     daughter discusses with her father the fact that spiders are said to eat their mothers creates a vibe that, if partly comic, also suggests a sense of unsettling possibilities. In contrast, all is clear cut when we become aware of Toshio's patriarchal dominance. It is illustrated by the fact that, without consulting Aki in any way at all, he hires as a helper in his engineering work an old friend who turns up out of the blue. He is Yasaka (Asano Tadanobu) and we soon discover that he has just been released from prison having been incarcerated for killing a man. Hardly a man to introduce into your family life without risk, Yasaka could be that overfamiliar figure, the man who moves in and threatens a household. However, he gets on well with young Hotaru and any such fancies on our part may be ill-judged.

 

This first half, controlled and well played, intrigues us admirably and has a character all its own. But then, after a dramatic incident that leaves us asking questions, the film fades to black. When it resumes it is eight years later, a fact not immediately made clear, and a new character, Takashi (Taiga), who is Toshio's new assistant, becomes a key figure. That would not matter in itself, but the whole tone of the film changes and it becomes a drama of hidden secrets revealed in which a dream figure can appear as an hallucination. Here and elsewhere in the second part there is a degree of stylisation in the film's narrative style that makes one feel that the far more melodramatic second half is totally divorced from the mode of what has gone before. By the film's close deaths abound, but one feels nothing. This is not the fault of the adept cast being entirely due to Fukada offering us a work in which the two halves never come close to forming a consistent whole.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Asano Tadanobu, Tsutsui Mariko, Taiga, Shinokawa Momone, Mahiro Kana, Furutachi Kanji, Miura Takahiro.

 

Dir Fukada Koji, Pro Nimura Hiroshi and Sawada Masa, Screenplay Fukada Koji, Ph Negishi  Kenichi, Art Dir Suzuki Kensuke, Ed Fukada Koji, Music Onogawa Hiroyuki, Costumes Keiko Murashima.

 

Comme des Cinémas/Nagoya Broadcasting Network/MAM Film/Aeon Entertainment/Elephant House-Eureka Entertainment.
120 mins. Japan/France. 2016. Rel: 5 May 2017. Cert. 12A.