Japanese cinema has brought us gracefully humanistic masterworks of domestic drama from the like of Yasujiro Ozu, Yasujiro Shimazu, and Yoji Yamada. This is not one of them. The Toshio Suzuoka and his family are not exactly happy, but they are essentially in a state of equilibrium until the arrival of an associate from his past in Kôji Fukada’s Harmonium (trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects.
In all honesty, Suzuoka is not an especially loving husband or father, but he provides well enough with his garage-based metal-working shop. In fact, business is brisk enough, he can hallway justify bringing on Kusataro Yasaka as his assistant. Unbeknownst to his wife Akie, Suzuoka was the accomplice Yasaka never named for his role in the murder he has just finished serving a prison sentence for. Obviously, Suzuoka is acting out of guilt, but his wife and daughter Hotaru take a genuine liking to the new member of the household, even when Yasaka partially confides in Akie (diplomatically leaving out her husband involvement).
At first, Harmonium seems to follow the general trajectory of Down and Out in Beverly Hills, with Akie fighting to deny her sexual attraction to Yasaka, and ten-year-ish Hotaru looking up to him as a supplemental parent-figure (especially when he starts giving her lessons on the titular pump organ). However, the film takes a shockingly disturbing turn late in the second act that frankly might be too much for many viewers.
Regardless, the effects of the now missing Yasaka’s actions will remain ever present for his former employers. Yet, fate takes an almost Biblical turn when the grown son Yasaka never knew is unknowingly hired by Suzuoka to succeed him.
Harmonium is a taut, claustrophobic film, but it never observes traditional thriller conventions. In fact, it has a pronounced habit of zagging whenever you expect it to zig. Although certainly not a genre film per se, it is still something of a domestic horror story. In many ways, it compares quite directly with Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata.
All four starting principals give impressively assured, stringently restrained performances, but it is especially harrowing to see Mariko Tsutsui go slightly, but not completely nuts as Akie Suzuoka. It is also rather remarkable how Tadanobu Asano can shift Yasaka from quietly world weary to fiercely ominous with almost imperceptible alterations in body language and tone of voice. Yet it is Momone Shinokawa and Kana Mahiro who really tear up viewers as the younger and older incarnations of Hotaru.
Arguably, the ending is maybe a bit too indeterminate for such an otherwise uncompromising film. Regardless, it is definitely the work of an assured stylist of distinctly Japanese sensibilities. Highly recommended for the unsentimental, Harmonium screens this Tuesday (2/21) as part of the 2017 edition of Film Comment Selects.