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11:05 AM PDT 5/15/2016 by Deborah Young
An ideal Japanese family is shattered when a stranger comes to live with them.
Koji Fukada is one of Japan’s most innovative filmmakers, and after his depressing post-nuclear holocaust film Sayonara, which featured a character played by an android, he bounces back in top form with the resonant, enigmatic, Harmonium (Fuchi ni Tatsu). Practically a thematic reworking of his award-winning 2010 black comedy Hospitalite, it once again considers the unforeseen consequences that befall an ordinary Japanese family when they invite a stranger into their snug home as a live-in worker. Fukada describes these family-centered films as “two sides of the same coin”. But here, the comic elements abruptly fall away mid-film and the tone shifts to real tragedy. While the first hour slyly builds up the illusions of a man and his wife using the stranger as a catalyst for their weaknesses, in the second half their guilt and lies come home to roost with a shock. It’s hard not to leave the film shaken.
The opening scenes underline the depressing banality and self-satisfaction of a small suburban family: Toshio, his wife Akie and their pert little girl Hotaru, who is studying the harmonium with obnoxious repetition. The nerdy little Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) has a metal shop attached to the house. One day a tall thin man dressed in white appears. Mr. Yazaka (Tadanobu Asano) explains in hushed tones that he has just been released from prison after serving 11 years for murder. Stunningly, Toshio hires him on the spot as his assistant and invites him to live in their spare room.
This all comes as a surprise to Akie (Mariko Tsutsui), but Toshio assures her Mr. Yazaka is an old friend. His manners are impeccable, he is a hard worker, and he generously offers to coach Hotaru with her harmonium lessons. Yet little by little, his presence in the house becomes more and more frightening. Asano, who has acted in Thor and 47 Ronin, makes the most of his commanding persona to subtly creep out the others. Without really trying, he soon has a hold on each member of the family. While Toshio looks on mutely, Akie develops an attraction to the gallant stranger. But why doesn’t her husband say something?
The mystery only thickens after a serious accident occurs to a member of the family. Mr. Yazaka vanishes, and years later the family is still searching for him with the help of Toshio’s new assistant Takashi (Taiga), who is also not innocent. The past can never be laid to rest, and they plow ahead as though looking for some way to express their feelings of guilt. The final scenes leave a bitter taste and the opposite of closure.
The highly competent cast makes a remarkable switch from exhibiting their comic foibles to barely coping with what’s left of their lives after tragedy strikes. If at first Tsutsui’s wife seems like a foolish woman who is approaching middle age and looking for a fling with their lodger, she gains dignity and sad respect in her new guise of neurotic anxiety after the fact. The change that comes over Furutachi, a regular Fukada actor, is even more jarring when he sheds his thinly veiled cynicism in the dramatic climax.
Tech credits, too, switch hit from depicting the pretty, cluttered everyday life of a family hiding its past, to the pared-down emptiness of dark wood paneling and bleak winter lighting when the truth has come out. And it’s not a pretty sight.
Production companies: Comme des Cinema, Nagoya Broadcasting Network in association with MAM Films
Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Mariko Tsutsui, Kanji Furutachi, Taiga, Miura Takahiro, Momone Shinokawa, Kana Mahiro
Director, screenwriter: Koji Fukada
Producers: Hiroshi Niimura, Masa Sawada
Director of photography: Kenichi Negishi
Production designer: Kensuke Susuki
Editor: Koji Fukada
Music: Hiroyuki Onogawa
World sales: MK2 Films
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)