Toshio hires Yasaka to work in his workshop. But then this old acquaintance, who has just been released from prison, begins to meddle in Toshio’s family life…
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★★★★ review by feedingbrett on Letterboxd
I have often defined Japanese cinema as a platform that embraces the furthest extremities of the stylistic spectrum. With stories either channelling the wickedly absurd or the naturally tender; narratives that are out of this world or thematic explorations with a gentle and contemplative flow. It is because of this that I admire the nation for their output within the medium, at times more so than any other regions could ever produce, as they possess a great sense of intelligence and openness for the medium to a broad range of audiences, ensuring that something would be someone’s particular taste.
Harmonium, in itself, is a daring piece as it opens and immerses the audience onto that familiar domestic drama, executed with a slow and purposeful grace, that we all know and love. It builds mystery and curiosity in the dynamics of its characters, and eventually their personal histories. Much of what is being conveyed is through actions and blocking, dialogue initially kept to a minimum and slowly builds as the film progresses. A family clearly intact but lacking in passion, assertion, and empathy, with the husband, Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), revealing to be the most distant of the three. Akié (Mariko Tsutsui), the maternal role of the unit, feels this passive disconnect, and slowly finds solace in the arrival of Toshio’s friend, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), who stays with them as a favour after his recent release from prison.
Of course, this sense of comfort for Akié did not come with immediacy, caution and discomfort were felt in his intrusive presence; creating ripples that seem to get bigger with the members of the unit, notably those who have just met him for the first time. These ripples are not, however, feelings of danger and fear, but reacting to them with welcoming arms, as Yasaka proves himself as a positive force in a household that has long been deprived from the paternal role. The film holds onto and builds an atmosphere of optimism and calmness, that the idea feels infectious, and just when you find that comfort zone, the rug is pulled beneath you and the dramatic gears begin to function differently.
Without entering into spoiler territory, director Kôji Fukada subverted and punished us of our expectations, and remoulded the atmosphere of one that is more sombre and aching. There is a resemblance to the aesthetics of Michael Haneke in the manner that the story is being unfolded, but Fukada doesn’t completely abandon the foundations of his earlier segments, as quiet and tight interactions between characters are still at display here, it’s just the emotional atmosphere is different.
I feel the more I disclose about the film, the less that this film would feel as satisfying when endured. Best to enter into it as blind as possible. I’ll end this write-up emphasising this; if you want a piece of cinema that lingers on dual sides of the spectrum, Harmonium seems to be that middle-ground that carries a strong sense of pace, intelligence, and intensity. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and there are some aspects that I feel could have been polished, but I think it is a film that is worth seeing.
★★★½ review by preston on Letterboxd
"A bit weird, right?"; "I couldn't really say". Tadanobu Asano is weird, a sallow, impeccably formal figure in dress shirt or snow-white overalls - taken off to reveal a blood-red top at a critical moment - hovering first in the background of frames ("You're putting us off," says the mother, embarrassed) then in the background of the story. Guilt leads to smothering, God quietly drops out of the picture, a victim's only power is to be a victim, slapping her own face by way of epiphany. The staging can be clumsy, especially in the second half (the young man is a contrivance, seemingly oblivious to the effect all his plot exposition is having), but the undercurrents keep it going and the sadness, in the end - after the harmonium tries and fails to play titular deus ex machina - is profound.
★★★★½ review by dizzy4111 on Letterboxd
A study of the sins of the father that rivals any film so far this year. It's bleak as hell but consistently gripping. A thriller by way of Kore-eda is an admittedly reductive way to put it but it's a thought that kept entering my mind throughout.
★★★½ review by ButtNugget on Letterboxd
An honest-to-goodness Greek tragedy that takes the form of a quiet little Japanese family drama, complete with layers upon layers of biting irony. Very nice. Director Koji Fukada is one to watch.
★★★★ review by thebestzest on Letterboxd
This film really made me appreciate silence, and simplicity in film. The Western tradition always seems to lean towards packing as much into a frame as possible, and to get as much coverage as possible. But Asian cinema always seems to make such good use of silence, emptiness, and staging everything in a single frame rather than getting singles of everyone.
Fukada also made a lot of risky moves in this film, while I won't spoil anything I will say that I was constantly muttering 'No way' and 'As if' under my breath for the duration of the film.
The pacing was fantastic, and emotionally this was one of the more engaging films I've seen at MIFF 2016 so far.
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