Japan / 120 minutes / color / Comme des Cinémas, Nagoya Broadcasting Network, MAM, Aeon, Elephant House, Asahi Shimbun, Cinémas du Monde, Mountaingate Dir & Scr: Kôji Fukada Pr: Hiroshi Niimura, Yoshito Ohyama, Masa Sawada, Tsuyoshi Toyama Cine: Ken’ichi Negishi Cast: Mariko Tsutsui, Kanji Furutachi, Tadanobu Asano, Taiga, Momone Shinokawa, Kana Mahiro, Takahiro Miura.
An oddly hypnotic piece of Japanese neonoir, presented in two acts that are separated by a period of years.
Toshio (Furutachi) runs a small, independent metalworking company, its staff just him and a succession of apprentices, with his wife Akié (Tsutsui) helping with the accounts. One day, to Akié’s surprise, he suddenly takes on the enigmatic Mr. Yasaka (Asano), an old friend of his whom she’s never met who “just happened to be passing.” We soon learn that Yasaka has recently come out of jail after an eleven-year term served for murder, and it doesn’t take too much deduction to realize that Toshio was somehow implicated in that crime: it’s by way of repaying the debt of silence that Toshio has hired his old acquaintance.
Mariko Tsutsui as Akié.
Yet Yasaka has repented his transgression, and done his best to make amends to the victim’s kin. Akié finds it easy to forgive his past sins, especially since she’s beginning to fall in love with him. Besides, he’s teaching her daughter Hotaru (Shinokawa) to play a new piece on the harmonium for the school concert . . .
Tadanobu Asano as Yasaka.
Eight years later, Hotaru (now played by Mahiro) is a paraplegic and Toshio is still consumed by the desire to track down Yasaka and kill him for having crippled the child in an act of vengeance. He believes, too, that Yasaka seduced Akié; he doesn’t know that part of the reason for Yasaka’s vengeful crime was in retaliation for Akié’s having forcefully refused him. Matters become more complicated when Toshio and Akié discover that the new apprentice, Takashi Yamakami (Taiga), who’s becoming almost a family member, is Yasaka’s estranged illegitimate son.
Momone Shinokawa as Hotaru.
Although this is a movie that’s in large part about the consequences of violence, especially about how those consequences may impact the innocent, there’s almost no violence on screen: just about the only violent act we see is Akié’s rejection of Yasaka’s almost rape-like attempt to have sex with her.
Taiga as Takashi Yamakami.
For me it’s Akié, who along with Hotaru pays the main price for Toshio’s long hypocrisy, who’s the center of this tale. She’s rendered pitch-perfectly by Mariko Tsutsui as effectively two different women separated by eight years of heartbreak that prematurely age her: the term “long-suffering” could have been invented for her. (The makeup department did a splendid job here, too; the older Akié is quite obviously the same woman yet has been “thickened” all over.) Bizarrely, whoever wrote the blurb for the US DVD of Harmonium didn’t think Tsutsui’s name was worth a mention.
Kana Mahiro as the older Hotaru with Mariko Tsutsui as Akié.
Slow-moving yet never lacking in intriguing incident, beautifully paced (just look at the timing in the opening sequence before Hotaru runs back to turn off her metronome, after a gap that’s perfectly judged to allow Mom to tell her to) and superbly photographed (albeit very darkly, at least on the US DVD release), embellished by a nice red herring or two, Harmonium is refreshingly quiet in its approach. I imagine it’ll be a long time before I forget its atmosphere—and Tsutsui’s performance.