This Tokyo family have been getting by, concentrating on the minutiae of life, with father Toshio (Kanji Furatchi) a mechanic and his wife Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) looking after their young daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa) who has been learning to play the harmonium for a piece at a school concert soon. They chat over breakfast and the little girl describes a spider she has seen in the garden that was eaten by its babies, and Akie says she would not like that to happen to her, only to be told her daughter wouldn't eat her as she wouldn't taste nice. Toshio doesn't join with this conversation, as if he has something on his mind, but he was not expecting the visit from Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), a face from his past...
A rare film to worry about the social implications of violence without taking the thriller format, Harmonium was writer and director Kôji Fukada musing over what happens in the modern world when those incidents we see occurring to other people on the news such as unplanned murders or terrorist attacks, happen to us. With that in mind the lead character would appear to be Akie who turns out to be blameless in the rigmarole that is exposed as the plot unfolds, though the effects of that get to her to quite an extent, leading up to a finale that fails to draw the threads of the movie to a conclusion. As long as you were aware you may be left hanging, you may get on with this better than if you were expecting a proper resolution.
This was naturally the point of the exercise, to emphasise the way the world can spin out of control without any warning whatsoever, as it does for Akie. It was probably best not to know anything about what was going on before you watched Harmonium for the full effect, which though it featured hardly any instances of violence on the screen and was more captivated in the aftermath, like ripples in a pond expanding from the point of a stone's impact on the surface, managed to quietly build to what came across as sudden scenes of turmoil that were unexpectedly disturbing if you had not being paying attention and were anticipating this to be a low key family drama about the introduction of a lodger into a contented family unit.
But how contented were Akie and her family? It's clear there's some problem or other with Toshio that he is not sharing with his wife, something possibly from years ago and that has now re-entered the picture with the arrival of Yasaka who no sooner than he reintroduces himself to his old pal Toshio after some time away, has invited himself into his home to live with him. Akie is naturally baffled by this, not to mention perturbed - who is this man who has made himself part of the family that she was carefully guarding, and has her husband behaving as if this was the most natural thing in the world? The answer to that was eked out of the film over the course of two hours, as this was an experience that took its time, often to the detriment of the suspense until you twigged you were being lulled into a false sense of security.
The fact that the pivotal scene, showing up almost exactly at the halfway mark, was so upsetting if you had any investment in at least the female characters, was never fully explained - we can well see something dreadful has happened, but we are not told what it was or how it could have been allowed - meant there was an awkward air to the film, akin to being told a story that was somehow very important, but with specific details that could have helped you to understand the whys and wherefores left out. You could argue this was Fukada's method of replicating the randomness of violence in the civilised world, from out of the blue and leaving the victim wondering why me? What have I done to deserve this? But aside from the rather reductive conclusion "shit happens" you may be at a loss to explain anything in Harmonium too; it was obviously designed to prey on your mind after you had watched it thanks to what amounted to elliptical storytelling, but not entirely, teasing us with enough logic, enough guilt, then pulling back at the last moment - almost literally. Music by Hiroyuki Onogawa.
[Eureka's Blu-ray has an interview with the director and the trailer as extras on the disc, plus a booklet.]