Harmonium (Fuchi ni Tatsu)

Typically, a small home features prominently in this Japanese family drama, in which an ex-con goes to live and work with a man who we later discover is indebted to him, as a result of an unseen act carried out years beforehand. The ex-con, perhaps through desperation, or perhaps – as we discover later – for some other reason, has no shame in imposing himself on the family’s territory, but he quickly begins to show his value, first helping the young daughter with her harmonium lessons and then later developing a friendship of sorts with the mother. Having the action take place in a small, cramped area means that both pre-existing and previously non-existent relationships between these four characters develop quickly, as each struggles to find the privacy they once took for granted (and indeed struggles to cope without it), and as things change between them there’s a grim inevitability that things are going to go wrong at some stage. (When it does happen, director Kōji Fukada deals with two incidents in a rather matter-of-fact, distant manner, which conversely seems to emphasise the oddness of the day in which the incidents take place.) The film is split into two parts; the first, leading up to two terrible events, is suffused with dread, the second – set years later – a suffocating sadness and a sense that a new character’s genuine attempt to put things right is just going to lead somewhere very dark indeed. Good performances all round, and Fukada uses a visual style that’s comparable with (or influenced by) other acclaimed, modern and historic Japanese directors, in which the home and the surrounding urban area are presented without much in the way of photographic bells and whistles. (***½)