Feature Four Frames

Secrets and Deception in Koji Fukada’s Harmonium

In Koji Fukada’s Harmonium (Fuchi ni tatsu, Japan, 2016), deception is a theme but also a narrative strategy involving both the characters and the viewers. This slow-paced film revolves around a family living in a suburb in Japan – the father Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), the mother Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and their daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa). Many of the scenes focus on the family’s everyday life, including Toshio’s job – he is a metalworker and has a workshop in his garage.

The film is divided into two parts. In the first part, Hotaru is a child aged about ten years, and the second shows her as an adolescent about eight years later. As a young girl, Hotaru is a lively child who is learning to play the harmonium and looking forward to performing at a concert. However, at the end of this first part, Toshio finds her lying under a bridge, unconscious and bleeding profusely from a wound in her head. The second part reveals that Hotaru (now played by Kana Mahiro) survived but suffers severe brain damage and is now confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak or move.

In the first part of the film, the peaceful but ordinary life of the family changes with the sudden appearance of Sotaro Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), a friend of Toshio’s from his past. The dialogues gradually reveal that Yasaka has served an eleven-year term in prison for murder. Without hesitation, Toshio offers him work and shelter, inviting him to live with the family, where Yasaka very quickly becomes the central figure, giving Akie a helping hand with the housework and playing the harmonium with Hotaru. Yasaka is far more sensitive than Toshio, whose taciturn behaviour is revealed in the film’s very first sequence, in which the family are having breakfast together. While Akie and her daughter chat with each other, Toshio does not utter a single word. Yasaka is very different, paying attention to details and instinctively understanding Akie’s and Hotaru’s feelings. In one sequence, he meets Hotaru in the street on her way to the music lesson. His guess that she is feeling uneasy is a correct observation – the girl rather dislikes her teacher. 

Yasaka’s friendly manner endears him to Hotaru and her mother to the point that Akie invites him to join the family on a trip to the river. When he reveals to Akie – a devout Christian – that he is a convicted murderer, his emotional confession convinces her of his remorse. Deeply moved by his words, she even says: “A man like him must be particularly loved by god.”

Almost unconsciously, Akie seeks Yasaka’s company, and it is therefore not surprising that they kiss during the trip to the river. However, Akie remains apprehensive, and when later Yasaka tries to make love to her, dragging her onto the kitchen table, she pushes him away. He stumbles and hurts his head at a chest of drawers, his face expressing his great frustration at this sudden rejection.

This scene is a rare moment of overt violence in Harmonium, the first part of which is dominated by the latent tension created by Yasaka’s presence. The implication that Yasaka is an intruder taking control of the family is expressed visually in the contrast between two shots. In the first, on the evening of Yasaka’s arrival at the family home, he stands in the background while Akie is helping Hotaru with her harmonium practice. The second is the same shot but with the characters arranged in the frame differently. Akie is now listening in the background while in the foreground, her daughter and Yasaka are playing the harmonium. 

© 2016 Comme des Cinémas

The most significant moment underlining this intrusion is when Akie takes a photograph, a selfie showing her with her husband and daughter and also Yasaka, the four lying side by side on the riverbank. Akie asks Yasaka to join them for the picture while Hotaro and Toshio are asleep and unaware they are being photographed, and just a few moments later, Akie is kissing Yasaka. The film suggests that Akie, in an unhappy marriage with Toshio, is attracted to the attentive Yasaka, or even captivated by him.

Presented as a manipulator from the very beginning, Yasaka is a figure around whom doubts and tension are continuously created. During the trip to the river, a dialogue between Yasaka and Toshio reveals that Toshio was Yasaka’s accomplice in the murder but his identity was not revealed, Yasaka assuming sole responsibility for the crime. This explains Toshio’s willingness to offer Yasaka work and accommodation immediately without even informing his wife. During the trip to the river, Yasaka drops his mask of friendliness for a brief moment, expressing his bitterness and jealousy. While he was in prison, his friend and accomplice was able to start a family, and Yasaka concludes: “I ask myself why my circumstances are so different from yours”. But then he starts laughing and dismisses these words as a joke.

However, is it only a joke or is Yasaka’s real motivation revenge for eleven years spent behind bars and is his aim the destruction of the family? The film, supported by Tadanobu Asano’s fine acting, plays cleverly with the ambiguity of this character, creating a feeling of danger emanating from his overtly calm and helpful exterior. Yasaka seems close to being a sociopath, charming but manipulative, and moreover profoundly evil.

Fukada toys with this idea of a Janus-faced figure. Yasaka usually wears a white shirt and black trousers or the white overall he wears for work. At the end of the first part, he has exchanged the white T-shirt that he normally wears under the overall for a red one. Red is the colour of the dress that Akie makes for Hotaru to wear at the concert – red the colour of love but also of blood, and here related to death, a leitmotif in the film.

© 2016 Comme des Cinémas

In the streets of the suburb, Yasaka removes the top part of his overall. Is this a way of showing his real self by revealing the red T-shirt under the overall? It is after this point that violence starts with Yasaka’s attempt to rape Akie. Still wearing the red T-shirt, he appears again in the sequence in which Toshio discovers his little daughter lying in a pool of blood while Yasaka leaves the horrifying scene without uttering a word. 

What happened to Hotaru? Did Yasaka attack her or hurt her accidentally? Or was he a mere passer-by who found her lying there unconscious? Yasaka is depicted as a suspicious character but is he really guilty? The film gives no clue to the truth, and the second part adds to the doubts that warn against jumping to conclusions and condemning Yasaka. Is he really as manipulative as the viewer is made to believe?  

In the second part of the film, Yasaka does not appear, but he is nevertheless an absence-presence haunting Toshio and Akie as well as Toshio’s new apprentice Takashi (Taiga). Determined to find out what happened to his daughter, Toshio has engaged private investigators to trace Yasaka, who disappeared after the incident with Hotaru. Akie has visions of Yasaka in her daydreams, and Takashi turns out to be Yasaka’s son in search of a father whom he has never met.

Takashi’s identity is not immediately revealed, but after a while and not unlike his father, he becomes part of the family’s everyday life, having lunch with his employer and taking care of Hotaru. However, Hotaru’s condition has changed dramatically the way Toshio and Akie live. The couple can no longer have meals together, and while Toshio eats a lonely meal in the kitchen, his wife feeds their helpless daughter. More than in the first part, they seem to live in two separate worlds.

Harmonium is dominated by hard cuts creating abrupt changes of settings and situations, for example at the end of the first part. In the first shots of the second part, different hairstyles are the first indications of the passage of time. Both Toshio and Akie look older and Akie in particular seems to have aged considerably and be worn out. However, the workshop has prospered, as documented by a number of brand-new machines and the fact that Toshio has an apprentice. However, this success has no positive impact on the couple’s deteriorating relationship. When Akie finds out about her husband’s involvement in the murder for which Yasaka was convicted, she confronts him with his complicity. Toshio does not deny it, but his account of the killing is devoid of emotion and given while he cuts his toenails.

Toshio is the central figure in this narrative of deception, having kept secret his participation in the killing of a young man and also his past as a yakuza. His whole married life is founded upon lies about his past. It is his inability to face up to his guilt and accept punishment that triggers the tragic events leading to death and destruction. The shot of the family members and a fourth person – but now with Takashi instead of his father – lying side by side on the riverbank reappears in the film’s last shots. However, now no photograph is taken, and Toshio and Takashi have been trying to save the two women from drowning after Akie, with Hotaru in her arms, has jumped into the river from a bridge. While diving in the water in search of his wife and daughter, Toshio has a vision of Hotaru swimming unaided – a further example of deception. The final shot shows him trying desperately to resuscitate his daughter. Despite suggesting that Hotaru and also Takashi, who has managed to pull her out of the water but now lies lifeless next to her, are beyond help, the ending remains open, leaving it to the viewer to imagine the future.

© 2016 Comme des Cinémas

By Andrea Grunert

Andrea Grunert is an independent scholar (Ph.D University Paris X, with a dissertation on the films of Clint Eastwood and the American frontier) and freelance writer and lecturer in film and cultural studies. She has published widely in France and Germany. She is the editor of three books published by Charles Corlet (France): Le corps filmé (2006), L’écran des frontières (2010) and De la pauvreté (2013). Her Dictionnaire Clint Eastwood is out in French bookshops, published by Vendémiaire.

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