A quietly combustible tale of punishment and crime set in motion when a family lets a mysterious man move in with them, “Harmonium” makes the viewer question neat causal equations of sin, retribution, and atonement. Director-writer Koji Fukada offers an off-kilter take on that most venerable of Japanese genres — the family drama. In the process of revealing hidden strains in marital life and parenting, he ponders the enigma of human motives. Shot in a meticulous yet unmannered style, the film provides the veteran cast with an ideal framework to mount masterful performances. Though mainstream audiences may not sing along to “Harmonium’s” tune, its cinematic and intellectual rigor should resound at quality festivals.
Fukada’s wry, airy works like “Hospitalite” (2010) and “Au revoir l’ete” (2013) have been likened to the spirit of Eric Rohmer’s “Moral Tales” cycle. Whereas “Hospitalite,” which, according to the director, was intended as a pilot to “Harmonium,” uses ironic humor to depict a petite-bourgeois household dismantled by its own hypocrisy, this tale approaches a family’s flawed construct with the critical seriousness of Robert Bresson or Fukada’s compatriot Nagisa Oshima.
A breakfast conversation on the religious implication of “mommy spiders” eaten by their spawn serves as a prescient metaphor for parenthood, and sets the tone for the film’s later arguments on justice and karma. Like “Hospitalite,” “Harmonium” features a suburban, lower-middle-class household of three who live above their small, family-owned factory. Also like that film, a man claiming past ties turns up asking for a job. This time, it’s Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), an old buddy of owner Toshio (Kanji Furutachi, who played the intruder in “Hospitalite”) fresh out of the clink. Toshio offers him work, and a room in their house, but it’s hinted that it’s neither done out of kindness nor for old time’s sake.
Toshio’s wife Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) initially feels ill-at-ease with a stranger in her home, but warms to him when he coaches her young daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa) on the harmonium, which the moppet plays with screeching ineptitude. Kenichi Negishi’s camera subtly maneuvers around the house and nondescript neighborhood to show how Yasaka invades physical and psychological space without seeming to do so. A flirtation begins between Akie and her houseguest, and what makes the cagey overtures between these plain and outwardly prudish characters so intriguing is the uncertainty of who’s seducing whom. At the same time, it illustrates how tepid relations are between the married couple.
Eventually, one starts to wonder about the spontaneity of Yasaka’s interest in Akie or even in Hotaru, until his creeping aggression culminates in a shocking tragedy. Further surprising narrative expectations, the yarn leaps forward eight years, when the arrival of new worker Takashi (Taiga) — and the revelation of his identity — again throws the family into disarray.
Cycles of guilt, blame and vindictiveness are replayed in scenes of scorching emotional power, which elicit gut-wrenching performances from Tsutsui and Furutachi. The Japanese title, which means “Standing on the Edge” takes on existential resonance in the finale, which manages to be stirring without offering any catharsis, or even answers. That it succeeds in doing so is all the more impressive, considering the measured (some would say slow) tempo.
Tsutsui’s sense of when to hold back and when to let herself go is nearly perfect, and her emotional depths are astounding. Still the film is dominated by Asano, whose presence is felt even in his absence. Projecting a placid, inscrutable image in white, workers’ overalls or starchy white shirt and stiffly ironed black trousers, his sudden outbreaks of temper come startlingly, such as when he rips off those overalls to reveal a dangerously red T-shirt. The fact that it’s impossible to understand Yasaka’s motives, or lack thereof, represents the film’s statement on the unknowable conditions of life itself.
Technical credits are minimalist, conscious not to divert attention from the human drama. The only thing that stands out is the piercing noise of Hotaru’s harmonium playing and the deliberately grating sound of her metronome. The melody she repeatedly plays is sung by Asano with ineffable malice.