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‘Harmonium’: Dangerously good family drama

by Mark Schilling

The films of Koji Fukada have long wrapped ambitious themes in deceptively unassuming genre packages. His 2011 international breakout “Hospitalite” (“Kantai”) begins as a quirky comedy but becomes a sharp-edged drama of deceptions and secrets. Last year’s “Sayonara” starts as an offbeat essay in apocalyptic sci-fi, centering on a terminally ill woman and her robot caregiver, but transitions into a stark examination of death and dissolution.

His latest film, “Harmonium,” combines the above elements in a dark family drama that thoroughly deserves the usual adjectives heaped on the better suspense movies — “tense,” “gripping,” “fingernails-in-the-armrests” — while being insightful about such knotty, never-resolved issues as the vagaries of fate and the nature of evil. Winner of the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section of this year’s Cannes film festival, it proclaims the arrival of a major talent in Japanese films.

Scripted by Fukada, “Harmonium” is yet another of the filmmaker’s ironic titles, referring as it does to not only the pump organ played by the young daughter of its central couple but also the harmony — or rather the lack of it — in the couple’s marriage and lives.

Harmonium (Fuchi ni Tatsu)
Rating
Run Time 119 mins
Language Japanese

Toshio (Fukada regular Kanji Furutachi) runs a thriving metal-working shop, and his wife Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) serves as his office manager. Their cute 10-year-old daughter, Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa), is reluctantly learning the harmonium — and it sounds it.

The apparently calm, middle-class surface of their lives hides fissures suggested early on — the church-going Akie and Hotaru say grace before meals, while Toshio stays stonily silent — that widen with the arrival of a mysterious visitor. Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), a just-out-of-prison acquaintance of Toshio’s who shows up out of the blue and is soon working in the shop and sitting at the dinner table.

Stiff in manner, polite in language and dressed in dark trousers and a white shirt buttoned at the throat, Yasaka is a queasy combination of the dorky and the menacing. But he tries to ingratiate himself with the suspicious Akie and the shy Hotaru, helping around the house and teaching the girl a new tune on the harmonium. When he makes a stilted, if sincere, confession about his past to Akie and expresses an interest in her church, she begins to see both a tortured soul to save and an attractive man to … well, do what Toshio no longer does (if he ever did). But Akie also feels a guilt that she cannot shake.

That is as far as I’m taking the plot summary, since the film’s story unfolds in ways that surprise, with Fukada’s camera tailing his characters as they hesitatingly walk or grimly stride toward whatever lies ahead, with a feeling of heart-in-the-throat suspense.

And yet “Harmonium” is more than the sum of its shocks. Unlike the many family dramas here that color even their ostensible bad guys in shades of gray, “Harmonium” goes straight to the heart of evil, which is stronger than Akie’s uncertain version of Christian love. At the same time, the film is no simplistic morality tale. Instead it shows how our crimes and misdemeanors can live on, in forms that forever damage the innocent and brand the perpetrator.

As Yasaka, Asano is working in a familiar groove — he’s been playing versions of this unknowable, volatile character for decades by now — but with an undimmed intensity and ferocity. Veteran Tsutsui plays Akie as less contemptibly weak than dangerously vulnerable — she half-understands her danger and half-invites it. As Toshio, Furutachi takes an all-too-familiar role — the emotionally distant Japanese male — to unexpected heights in the film’s second half, with a power that shocks as much as Asano’s by-now patented explosions.

Cannes jurors are not always known for anointing the worthy, but this time, they got it right.