Japanese helmer Koji Fukada, active since 2008, has in Harmonium his best film so far. As an advocate of solemn dramas with surprising twists, Mr. Fukada, who also penned the script, keeps us entangled in a web of emotions, revelations, and startles, that pushes his film beyond the surface. The severe psychological backbone of the story ended up convincing the members of the jury panel at Cannes Film Festival, where the film won the Un Certain Regard prize.
Kanji Furutachi, a regular presence in Fukada films, is Toshio, a metalworker who lives a quiet life in the company of his wife, Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and their young daughter, Hotaru.
While mother and daughter always pray to God before eating, Toshio eats avidly and almost doesn’t talk. In truth, and regardless his love for them, he doesn’t pay much attention to their needs and often falls in rudimentary behaviors.
“Akie is haunted by visions of the murderer…”
On a certain day, Toshio gets the visit of an intriguing old friend, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), who just got out of jail, where he has spent 11 years for killing a young man. Toshio immediately hires this man and invites him to live with him and his family, a strange decision that makes Akie in the verge of an attack of nerves. At this point, and observing the two men’s ways, we conclude that there’s a past debt to be paid off.
However, little by little, Akie is beguiled by the gentleness and availability of Yasaka, who acts respectful, attentive, and becomes very handy at home. He even teaches Hotaru playing a song in the harmonium for her upcoming public performance. Akie spends more and more time with him and gets emotional when he goes into his troubled past. Forbidden kisses are exchanged between them on a sunny weekend day in the countryside as the family reunites with a friend. Still, Akie continues to resist him at home, frustrating his furtive advances and forcing a different personality to emerge in him.
Her disappointment and guilt are immeasurable when Hotaru is found on a sidewalk, inanimated with thick blood covering her head and with the rancorous Yasaka at her side. The madness expressed on his face dissipates all the possible doubts about the perpetrator of the monstrous act.
Eight years after, Yasaka remains untraceable while Hotaru, completely paralyzed, is perpetually confined to a wheelchair. The couple has opposite reactions: while Toshio dreams with revenge, Akie is haunted by visions of the murderer and her nervous system is visibly damaged.
“…about how hard it is to forgive and forget.”
The arrival of Takashi (Taiga), Toshio’s young new apprentice, will bring additional information about Yasaka. After so many years, is the couple ready to give up searching for the beast who took their peace of mind?
The slow yet penetrating plot development emphasizes the inherent fatalism of a story that, besides crime and evilness, also deals with karma and selfishness. An unblinking camera mounts compulsive scenarios, where an obstinate symbolism with the red color leads to a creepy, unsettling finale.
The surprising factor is crucial and only one scene by the end feels forced, when the couple finds someone that looks exactly like Yasaka from behind, teaching harmonium to a young girl.
Apart from that quibble, the director competently elucidates us about how hard it is, in certain cases, to forgive and forget.
Harmonium (2017) – Written and directed by Koji Fukada. Starring: Kanji Furutachi, Mariko Tsutsui, Tadanobu Asano, Taiga.
8 out of 10