Throughout Harmonium, writer-director Kôji Fukada works in a rapt and lucid hyper-textural style that suggests a merging of the sensibilities of Alfred Hitchcock and Yasujirô Ozu. Fukada’s fluid, shadowy, and multi-planed framing of power relationships suggests the films of the former, while his quietly attentive grasp of domestic quotidian suggests those of the latter. The result is a film that’s simultaneously lush and spare, lingering on the precipice of thriller terrain and informing certain gestures and objects with portent. Part of Harmonium’s power resides in its refusal to situate itself firmly in a single genre as it detonates fears and taboos, offering a parable of sins that are revisited upon their perpetrators.
Fukada stages long and languorous scenes of the film’s family in repose, establishing his suburban characters to us via physicality and routine. The adolescent girl of the house, Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa), practices the titular instrument each night, its sounds signaling a reliable sense of ritual and stability that’s both reassuring and irritating. The father, Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), is often barely present at the dinner table, eating his meals with an exclusive purpose which suggests that he’d rather be anywhere else, perhaps still working in his profitable sheet metal shop in the garage. Meanwhile, Toshio’s wife, Akié (Mariko Tsutsui) dotes on their daughter, partially so as to distract herself from her husband’s neglect.
It’s a testament to the film’s subtlety that we can distinguish, say, Toshio’s physicality at home from when he’s at work. In his metal shop, he’s focused and disciplined, treating various acquaintances and subordinates honorably. Leaning over a machine, he attains a purity of concentration that he can’t muster when interacting with Akié and Hotaru. These alternating modes of presence contrast with the unvaried intensity of Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), an old friend of Toshio’s who’s recently been released from prison after serving 11 years for murder, whom Toshio takes in as a houseguest and employee without any regard as to how his wife and daughter will react.
Yasaka stands ramrod straight and is polite to a peculiar degree, perhaps as a lingering result of incarceration’s rigid code of conduct. The ex-con appears outside of Toshio’s metal shop one day from out of nowhere, like an apparition, clad in a crisp white shirt that will serve as an unofficial uniform. Toshio bows to Yasaka, who teases him for taking such etiquette too far, as always. The men are instantly understood as sharing a past defined by rules that differ from those of tradesmanship or housekeeping, and it’s a submerged intersection of rules that defines Harmonium.
Connoisseurs of genre films will be on guard throughout these early scenes, assuming that Yasaka is here to destroy Toshio and his family for reasons to be later revealed. Fukada steadily chips away at our defenses, allowing the audience to enjoy Yasaka as a poignant outsider who’s shameful for his crimes and appreciative of this family’s generosity, though the film also drops hints and symbols of danger, such as a story of a female spider’s sacrifice for its offspring. (Akié’s somewhat defensive reaction to the spider story, told by Hotaru, is moving, revealing, and also reflective of the film’s behavioral density.) Yasaka quickly bonds with Hotaru, helping her to learn to play the harmonium, and is clearly attracted to Akié, who reciprocates. Fukada and Asano masterfully fetishize Yasaka’s weirdness as a signifier of humility, courting our urge to congratulate ourselves for looking beyond the character’s past. Yet the filmmaker and actor also allow for unmooring and foreshadowing ruptures in decorum, such as when Yasaka removes his white shirt on the street, stripping his pretense of politeness to reveal a hidden fury.
In many films with such an ominous setup, we’re impatient for the trap to be sprung, but Fukada’s dense and sprightly sense of setting and performance inspires a hesitancy to leave this first act behind. Throughout Harmonium, Fukada evokes tension with symmetrical imagery, which is understood to inadequately obscure emotional chaos while serving as its own inherent aesthetic reward. Watching the film, we feel as if we could navigate this home and its garage-set business, which are layered with details that are ecstatically ordinary, counterpointing the unease of Yasaka’s interloping.
Then, Fukada springs a profoundly cruel twist that refines one’s perception of Harmonium, eclipsing our worst fears of the narrative’s course. The film has a bifurcated structure, as the first hour introduces the characters while the second hour picks up eight years after an atrocity has occurred. The second act is an inverse of the first, in fact: Yasaka’s presence is destabilizing, but his subsequent absence is worse, connoting the inexplicable and unrectified savagery of life, which is heartbreakingly embodied by the frozen open expression of Hotaru’s mouth. Or is it inexplicable? Toshio has secrets of his own, which lured Yasaka into his domain and continue to reap fantastical ironies. The pitiless ending of this haunting morality play houses a perverse silver lining: Everything is stripped from Toshio, including his complacency.