Harmonium Review

Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) appears to be strangely disconnected from his family. He barely engages with his wife, Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) or young daughter Hotaru, when they sit down to eat at the dining table. Toshio runs a metal workshop from the family garage alongside his wife who works as the Office Manager. Their work and home lives are tied in closely together yet an unspoken divide seems to exist between the two, hidden beneath their placid, suburban, middle class existence.

It takes the arrival of an old acquaintance to shake the ground underneath the already fragile family set-up. Tasaka (Tadanobu Asano) has just been released from prison and in need of work. At this stage we aren't made aware of how he knows Toshio, but he is taken in and given a spare room, much to the dismay of Akie. That attitude slowly changes as Tasaka helps her daughter to learn the harmonium at home and Akie’s flirtation with her houseguest soon blooms into something more.

Where the film heads in its second half is best left to be experienced as it happens. Eight years later we rejoin the family, with Tasaka no longer in the picture and the family dynamic irrevocably changed. This is where many of the problems start to appear, unwinding the good work developed in the first hour. The introduction of a new character, Atsushi (Takahiro Miura), and continued heavy handed symbolism eventually brings us to a conclusion that never feels earned.

Not only is the story divided in two but so too is the strength of the narrative. The strange aura that surrounds Tasaka helps to create a quietly taut drama, where the suffocating constraints of familial responsibility begin to erode from within. Tadanobu Asano is unnerving in this role, entering into an already fractured home, buttoned up to the neck in a plain white shirt, ostensibly subservient and grateful, yet never quite offering enough assurance that the best of intentions are at the forefront of his mind.

What director Kôji Fukada is aiming for with the use of colour at first strikes the right balance before over-saturating the point once the story takes a turn for the worse. Akie begins to visit Tasaka’s room in the evening, often carrying the red dress she is making for her daughter. When they steal their first kiss, they are decorated by the red petals of the trees around them. Tasaka later reveals a red t-shirt. Atsushi carries a bright red rucksack. The bridge at the end is painted, yes you’ve guessed it, red. Set alongside the white shirts and the blue jumpers and dresses worn by Atsushi and Akie, the continued layering of visual clues becomes overbearing.

No fault can be placed at the door of a cast who handle their roles well and draw out characters you can believe in. It’s unfortunate that the second half fails to live up to a solid opening structure, almost taking the easy way out with the tragic turn of events and further undermining its credibility with the arrival of Atsushi. This is a family that is far from harmonious, involved in a story that feels just as uneven.


Family disquiet that ends as a tale of two halves


out of 10

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