Suburban Secrets: Kōji Fukada’s Harmonium (2016) – Blu-ray review
The ‘bad houseguest’ genre is shaken with this insistently menacing peek behind the politeness of suburban Japan to reveal the chilly soul beneath.
(Kōji Fukada, 2016)
A family sits at a table, the father on one side, his wife and daughter on the other. There’s an empty chair next to the man, disrupting the symmetry of this perfect surburban set-up. So, of course, when an old friend shows up, he’s invited in as a lodger, filling the space but inevitably bringing baggage.
Let the right one in, as the saying goes – and there’s a great lineage of films about the consequences of getting it wrong, from Theorem to The Guest. Koji Fukada’s film adds a distinctly Japanese slant to proceedings, with the arrival of Mr Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano) highlighting how this quiet, polite world is a great place to hide dark secrets in plain sight. Yet the impact on old friend Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) and his wife Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) is devastating.
For its first half, Fukada raises a sense of foreboding with minimal camera movement and a smart sense of which angles make seemingly benign spaces look full of dread. We know straight away, as does Toshio, that Yasaka is a jailbird; only gradually do the rest of the family learn of his past, by which time he’s ingratiated himself with his deferential manner and flair for teaching daughter Hotaru how to play the harmonium. As always in this genre, there’s an element of repressed passions and transgressive sexual attraction, as Akie finds herself drawn to the handsome stranger.
Just when you think this is becoming yet another tale of how the man of the house must fight for his masculine credentials, Fukada reveals a far bleaker tale of guilt and penance, and fate’s habit of playing the long game so as to attack when you least suspect. In a bold move, Fukada fast-forwards the action eight years at precisely the point where it risks becoming clichéd. The second half adds new emotional turmoil, driven by a twist that stays just the right side of plausibility and dominated by a heart-wrenching, shell-shocked performance by Tsutsui.
Not since The Place Beyond The Pines has a film been so ready to address the long-term ramifications of its story, but this is altogether more successful because Fukada keeps narrative sprawl in check, sustaining the coiled menace until a climactic excursion into the great outdoors feels as claustrophobic as the interiors. Throughout this second half, Fukada’s precise symbolism offers the forlorn hope of a new table, positioned at ninety degrees to the old one. Trouble is, there’s still an empty chair sitting in judgement.
Harmonium is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.
Tagged Japanese Cinema