Seven years after its success at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, Kōji Fukada’s Harmonium makes its way back to the big screen as part of this year’s East Asia Film Festival (EAFFI) at the Irish Film Institute (IFI). A haunting tragedy of suppressed emotion and internalised trauma, Fukada hits all the right notes in this chilling and compelling family drama.
Harmonium begins as it intends to proceed. Quietly but confidently unnerving. We are introduced to Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) who works as a mechanic out of his garage workshop. He is accompanied by—but seemingly indifferent toward—his wife Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and their daughter Hotaro (Momone Shinokawa). For the small family, life seems pleasant but mundane and uneventful. At the outset, the lack of dialogue between Toshio and Akie implies marital discord. Keeping the couple busy, and perhaps even holding their marriage intact, is the mildly talented and enthusiastic young Hotaro. The young girl practices the harmonium—a pump organ not dissimilar to a piano—and appears to be preparing for an upcoming school event wherein she can showcase her abilities. This is about as much excitement as the family currently seem to have. Until, on an overcast afternoon, Yasaka (Tadanobu Satō) appears at Toshio’s garage. Immediately, we learn that the two are not only old acquaintances but also that Yasaka is fresh from being released from prison. Out of what seems more obligation than preference, Toshio passively invites Yasaka to work as an apprentice in his work shop and to stay with the family for an indefinite period. Laying the groundwork for past revelations and family tensions, Yasaka becomes an increasingly visible but unsettling presence in the family’s life.
At just under two-hours running time, the pacing of Harmonium is impressively crafted. As events unfold, there are more and more layers of family history and interrelated tragic events that the audience is exposed to. Each move feels deliberate and each revelation creates room for further secrets to be unveiled as the film progresses. A glaring strength here is that Fukada understands the complex social dynamics at play. Himself penning the script, the interactions between husband and wife consistently unfold with a sense of regret and trepidation. Both Toshiro and Akie, in their own unique ways, feel as though they have married the wrong person and mutually understand the reasons behind their obvious disconnect. Importantly, this sets a compelling context for when Yasaka enters the household. Toshiro is the one who invited Yasaka into the family, but it is Akie and young Hotaro who seem most intrigued by his presence. Played with subtlety, Tadanobu Satō is excellent as the enigmatic Yasaka. We learn early on that he has links to organised crime and there are strong implications that Toshiro had been involved in Yasaka’s extended prison sentence. This is not only due to the minor interactions between the two men but also through an extended scene of dialogue between Yasaka and Akie. Toshiro’s wife seems fearful of Yasaka, but it is not always clear whether this stems from a fear of his past or an internalised fear of her growing lust towards him. These dynamics are nothing new for writer director Fukada. His 2019 feature A Girl Gone Missing focused on complicated family dynamics which not only involved an outsider but also a child at the centre of tragedy. Without giving too much away, there are elements of this that gradually permeate through Harminoum’s cold exterior.
A further and perhaps even more compelling observation here is that Harmonium stands on its own feet as an expertly made thriller. No moment is left untouched by a sense of impending dread or reflections on haunting past events. This is aided superbly by deliberate visual choices that Fukada makes throughout. Some shots are introduced early on and then recrafted in the final act with chilling effects. Even the introduction of Yasaka’s character, who arrives almost out of literal thin air and dressed in a long white shirt, makes you question whether or not everything that’s happening is real or a nightmarish manifestation of the family’s fears. Fans of Japanese horror will no doubt find these visuals appealing. Notable comparisons may be made here to the work of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, in particular the 2001 techno horror Kairo (Pulse) and 2016’s Creepy. Those films not only have stunning and memorable horror visuals but also do an excellent job at conveying a sense of inertia from an unwelcome and not quite identifiable lurking presence. Harmonium is the same, but also boasts an impressive dramatic narrative that persists—and will likely succeed—in keeping audiences engaged.
An understated but unmissable part of this year’s EAFFI.(5 / 5)
Kōji Fukada’s Harmonium will be playing as part of the East Asia Film Festival Ireland (EAFFI) at the Irish Film Institute (IFI) on Friday 31st March at 8.10pm