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Tuning the pump organ: Japanese thriller in family drama clothing has a man’s old friend just released from prison teach a child how to play a music instrument, to devastating consequences - in cinemas this week

Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa) is a young girl learning to play the harmonium (aka a pump organ) for an upcoming concert. Her dad Toshio (Fukada regular Kanji Furutachi) runs a small engineering supplies business out of his garage workshop. Her mum Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) encourages Hotaru’s learning of the instrument and helps with her husband’s business accounts. Into this seemingly harmonious and ordinary family setup steps Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), an old friend of Toshio’s recently released from prison. Yasaka seeks work and Toshio takes him on as an assistant. As the latter tells his wife, it’s a win-win situation as he currently has a high volume of work.

However there is more to both men than meets the eye – there are many secrets which relate to their shared past and which will be revealed one at a time at various points in the narrative. As can be seen from the UK trailer (at the bottom of this review) with Toshio demanding of Yasaka,”what did you do?”, a devastating event occurs towards the halfway point of the piece which changes everything (although we aren’t going to spoil the film for you and give it away). The film splits roughly into two parts, with the second part taking place some eight years after the first and involving another assistant employee the youthful Takashi (Taiga) with a different actress (Kana Mahiro) playing the adult Hotaru.

Despite the commensalism, Harmonium isn’t a straight forward family drama.

As the narrative progresses, Yasaka interferes with the female family members. First he inveigles his way into becoming Hotaru’s harmonium teacher, then having secured Akie’s trust and friendship, he begins making sexual advances towards Akie. The situation worsens all the time and you know it isn’t going to end well.

Opening with the merciless tick of a metronome, Harmonium is a relentless journey at a constant and unstoppable if slow pace. When you think it’s gone about as far as it can, it stops, jumps forward some eight years in time then goes even further in its second half. It’s a difficult film to categorise – it takes the form of a Japanese family drama, but if that sounds clean and rose-tinted don’t be fooled: it’s much darker and bleaker. While a few scenes play (effectively enough) like small screen fare the remainder carry an enormous latent power helped in no small part by a clutch of terrific performances. An unassuming little film on the surface which turns out as you watch to be a monumentally devastating one. Don’t miss.

Harmonium is out in the UK on Friday, May 5th. Full list of cinemas (which will regularly be updated) screening Harmonium may be found by clicking right here. Watch the clever, spoiler-free film trailer below:

Click here for our review of Destruction Babies (Tetsuya Mariko, 2016), another very recent highlight from Japanese cinema.

By Jeremy Clarke - 03-05-2017

Jeremy Clarke has been writing about movies in various UK print publications since the late 1980s as well as online in recent years. He’s excited by movies which provoke audiences, upset convent...

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