George Crosthwait previews today’s Discover Tuesdays presentation of Kōji Fukada’s Harmonium.
Winner of the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard strand of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, Harmonium is an alluring and unsettling moral parable that should establish director Kōji Fukada as a major filmmaker. Fukada’s 2013 film, Au revoir l’été, garnered favourable comparisons with Éric Rohmer and Mikio Naruse, but while Au revoir l’été and Harmonium both critique Japanese society, the former is gentle and contemplative, and the latter is at times a sickening experience.
Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano, delivering a trademark creepy/alluring performance) turns up unannounced at Toshiro’s (Fukada regular Kanji Furutachi) machine workshop after 11 years in prison. With no explanation to his wife, Akie (Mariko Tsutsui), Toshiro agrees to employ him and let him stay in the house. Yasaka wastes no time in inserting himself into the family unit. Akie and Toshiro’s young daughter Hotaru is particularly taken by Yasaka’s talent on the harmonium, and soon he is giving her lessons.
The setup draws a parallel with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 satire of the bourgeois family: Teorema. Teorema involves a celestial (or hellish, depending on your perspective) young visitor to the home of an upper-class Milanese family. The visitor seduces each family member in turn before departing as abruptly as he arrived. In his absence, the family members all experience individual epiphanies, either realising the entropy of their society, or unleashing some creative potential. Teorema has since been re-worked as a pitch-black and grungy comedy by Fukada’s compatriot Takeshi Miike in Visitor Q, and was also adapted (with heavy connections to John Carpenter’s synth driven 1970s and ’80s thrillers and horrors) by Adam Wingard as 2014’s The Guest. The spectre of Carpenter is also evoked by certain sequences in Harmonium; Yasaka slowly pacing the streets of suburbia in his white mechanic jumpsuit, or seeming to materialise and dematerialise amongst hanging washing, recalls Carpenter’s ‘bogeyman’ Michael Myers (Halloween).
Adhering to the structure of the 1st half of Teorema, the guest in Harmonium departs following an unexpected, mysterious and traumatic event. Unlike Pasolini’s film, there are no epiphanies for Toshiro’s family. Instead, a second visitor is introduced: a young man, and (possibly) a benevolent counterpart to the (possibly) malevolent Yasaka. Fukada allows his audience to draw potential theological connections; Christianity is a presence here, but not an overt theme. Form follows content in Ken’ichi Negishi’s cinematography – the almost imperceptible zoom in on Yasaka’s face as he tells his grim backstory, or the penultimate shot: a breathless, unflinching long-take which shows Fukada’s confidence to evoke feeling through images, rather than didactically preach through dialogue.
Harmonium is a work of delicate nuance, a quiet thriller that ceaselessly mines a sociological vein. Whether drawing inspiration from Italian arthouse, American slashers, or Japanese domestic drama, Fukada wields cinema as a political tool without diminishing film’s power to startle and entertain.