As Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) is working in his garage turned metal shop, we cut away to Yasaka’s sudden presence in the middle of the street, completely motionless, as if he were a ghost out to terrorize the poor, unsuspecting man. This scene, representative for the character’s haunting presence throughout the film, reminds of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), in which Jamie Lee Curtis’ character Laurie walks back from school with her friends, when an eye-line match shows us Michael Myers standing on the pavement. Both (ex-)detainees stand out visually in a very similar way, Yasaka wearing a blinding white shirt, while Myers wears his infamous pale white mask.
Kôji Fukada’s Harmonium explores themes of crime and punishment in one of the most recognizable settings imaginable, a family drama. Toshio, Akié and their daughter Hotaru’s (Momone Shinokawa) calm yet close to non-communicative Tokyo household is disrupted when Toshio offers a job and accommodation to Yasaka, an old friend who just finished serving time in prison. We immediately get a sense of the tension at play between the two men, conveyed effectively with an absence of any comradery or feeling of nostalgia – Toshio’s nervous laugh after he tells his lodger not to overdo it on the niceness is a telling example. Although reserved at first, Akié warms up to Yasaka’s kindness and good manners, while Hotaru finds Yasaka to be a much better music coach than her current harmonium teacher.
The original title, Fuchi ni tatsu, translates literally to “standing on the edge”, a phrase that is applicable to many of the film’s characters, figuratively and in one case literally. They either get pushed to, or are already standing on some kind of edge. Because of the cold distance in her marriage, the fragile Akié, a role Mariko Tsutsui completely owns with a very convincing and multi-layered performance, is driven towards extramarital relations, while years of blaming and built up frustration towards Toshio causes Yasaka, equally impressively portrayed by the beguiling Tadanobu Asano, to jump off the edge by seducing Akié. Not completely successful in his scheme, he goes on the attack (physically, not sexually) on Hotaru, leaving her speechless and paralyzed.
From the start of the film, it is very clear that color plays a significant role in Harmonium, on an aesthetical as well as a symbolic level. The pattern is most noticeable in Yasaka’s choice of clothing. He almost exclusively wears popping white shirts or overalls throughout the film, a color which in Japanese culture may convey purity, but also death. The only time he diverges from the pattern is right before the most calamitous events, when he opens up his shirt to reveal a blood red T-shirt, a color of passion or danger, both applicable.
Besides color, other deliberate, and perhaps more universal, choices concerning the visual style of the film are apparent from the very beginning. One of the most noticeable is the choice in aspect ratio. Whereas modern audiences are used to seeing films in the 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 widescreen cinema standards, Fukada’s choice for the narrower 1.66:1 variant pays off very well, by allowing for a better focus on the characters. In the numerous dinner scenes, for instance, the kitchen table takes up the whole frame as the family and their guest gather around it to eat.
The same dinner scenes demonstrate how the aspect ratio contributes to another recurring aesthetically pleasing element, namely symmetry. This device, perhaps more difficult to achieve in widescreen, really stands out in Harmonium. One can draw a clear line in the middle of the screen, through the heart of the table and the kitchen cabinets, while shots of the titular harmonium share a similar line of symmetry. This adds up to a visual harmony, which director of photography Ken’ichi Negishi supplements by keeping the characters in the exact middle of the screen at all times, almost exclusively on eye line level.
One might even go as far as to say that the jump in time of eight years in the middle of the film serves as a mirror line as well. The narrative of the film, however, definitely works at its best before this point, when sexual chemistry is built up between Yasaka and Akié, while the nature of his friendship – or shall we say association – with Toshio is being laid out in front of us, piece by piece. These early signs of adultery and the unprocessed events of the mysterious past the two men share evidently heads towards a culmination moment of inescapable tragedy. While this scene is very efficiently constructed to horrifying effect, the film loses most of its tension afterwards. The huge time jump leaves the viewer disoriented and confused for a significant time, with insufficient substance to make up for it until the very end.