Harmonium (淵に立つ, Koji Fukada, 2016)

harmoniumKoji Fukada first ventured into the family drama arena with the darkly comic satire Hospitalité in 2010 in which frequent collaborator Kanji Furutachi played the decidedly odd “family friend” who quickly took over the household and exposed all of its weaknesses before departing as mysteriously as he arrived. This time Furutachi plays the man of the house, though like his counterpart in Hospitalité, has not been telling the whole truth. Unlike much of Fukada’s previous work, Harmonium (淵に立つ, Fuchi ni Tatsu) abandons the comedy overtones for a truly bleak and tragic atmosphere which seems to speak of the death of the family unit itself.

On a morning just like any other, Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), Akie (Mariko Tsutsui), and their small daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa), take breakfast together around the kitchen table. Akie leads grace while Toshio reads his paper before Hotaru moves on to a story about the baby spiders in the garden and how they collectively eat their mother. After his wife and daughter have left for the day, Toshio lifts the shutter on his workshop only to see a familiar, if long forgotten, face standing behind it.

The two men talk and it’s clear they’re old friends but have not seen each other in a long time. Fresh out of prison, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano) is dressed in an odd looking suit without a jacket, the top button of his pristine white shirt neatly buttoned up. Toshio offers Yasaka a job in his workshop and a room in his house – all without a word to Akie, but somehow there’s something other than an altruistic desire to help an old friend who’s fallen on hard times at play.

Yasaka moves in and is permanently on his best behaviour but it isn’t until it’s discovered that he has a talent for the harmonium and begins to help Hotaru improve her playing that Akie starts to warm to him. It also helps that he’s interested in her spiritual life at the local protestant church, unlike her husband, and is generally around and available to her. Learning how Yasaka ended up in prison and how he now feels about his crime, Akie comes to feel this melancholy man must be especially worthy to God, and sure enough a mutual attraction begins to arise between the pair.

There’s a kind of debt implied in the relationship between Yasaka and Toshio which has Toshio running scared, trying to keep his old friend sweet lest he call it in. Yasaka’s intentions remain unclear, has he come for revenge or for comfort, to restart his life or to rehash the past? There’s something inescapably odd about his presence with his identical black suit trousered, white shirted figure which simultaneously makes him look like someone who just came out of prison and has been given one outfit to help them get a job, and like a dodgy TV evangelist or cult leader – ever so slightly too buttoned down and contained. At one point he tells Toshio he’s starting to wonder why Toshio has all of this ordinary success and he doesn’t, he could take it if he wanted to. Toshio, it has to be said, is not trying very hard to protect his place at the head of the table.

Like Yoshimitsu Morita in that other landmark of the family drama turned inside out by an unscheduled visitor, The Family Game, Fukada also makes the dinner table the centre of the conversation. We can see right away that this is not a “harmonious” household through the unbalanced seating arrangements – Toshio on one side, barely speaking and reading his paper, while Akie and Hotaru sit together opposite him reciting grace before they eat. There’s an ugly, empty space at the expected fourth position which is soon to be filled by Yasaka, but his presence does little to alleviate the anxiety of three people sitting at a table meant for four. Notably, after an unexpected tragedy occurs in the second part of the film the table itself has been rotated ninety degrees and only half of it is ever used as the lower part is cut off with a small TV showing live footage from another room. The family no longer take meals together, the kitchen is no longer a warm and organised place but a cold and chaotic one.

The sins of the father are visited upon the child. Everyone thinks they’re guilty of something, and that someone else is paying for their wrongdoing (and by implication forcing them to suffer by proxy). The presence of the harmonium – a staple in small churches and parlours of the 19th century, has a strangely religious resonance that perfectly tallies with Akie’s adherence to her Protestant faith which infuses the house even in the absence of crosses or other forms of iconography. Yasaka carries with him a sense of malevolence, like a visiting demon tempting and provoking as he goes, though it ultimately remains unclear if he is even to blame for the tragedy which befalls the family or is simply another victim of it.

Retaining his elegantly composed, static camera, Fukada makes use of unusual and high impact cuts as well as a daring, unannounced jump forward in time. Red becomes a recurrent theme as it alarmingly cuts through the otherwise subdued colour scheme whether as a T-shirt hidden behind a calm white boiler suit, or the reflections of a car window as a particularly dark thought passes through a passenger’s mind. Filled with mismatched pairs and asymmetrical setups, the family find themselves locked into a wheel of repetitions until the final scene which sees them recreate a “happy” family photo in a kind of grim tableau as neglectful father Toshio desperately fights to revive his family. Darker in tone and filled with an almost supernatural malevolence, Harmonium is a tense and unpredictable drama probing at the status of the traditional family in an increasingly uncertain world.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

Hospitalité (歓待, Koji Fukada, 2010)

hospitaliteFrom the Ozu-esque, classic calligraphy of its elegant title sequence, you might expecting a rather different kind of family drama than the one you find in Koji Fukada’s Hospitalité (歓待, Kantai). Though his compositions lean more towards the conventional, Fukada aims somewhere between a more restrained The Family Game and a much less explosive Theorem as he uses the family as a microcosmic analogy for his country’s attitudes towards “outside intrusion”. An absurdist tale of dysfunctional families and hypocritical social standards, Hospitalité takes a long hard look at whom exactly you regard as “guest” and how much you’re really prepared to take care of them.

The Kobayashis run a small printers shop in a rundown suburban backwater. Son Mikio has inherited the business and lives above it with his second wife, Natsuki, and his daughter from a previous marriage, Eriko. Older sister Seiko has recently moved back in following a divorce though she also has a vague idea of wanting to study abroad. Things start to go haywire when little Eriko’s pet parakeet absconds from the family home. Heartbroken, she designs a special flyer to try and find it which brings them to the attention of “old friend” Kagawa who claims to have seen the bird somewhere near the station.

Kagawa hangs round a little longer than necessary chatting to the couple when their assistant suddenly keels over. This allows a convenient opening for Kagawa to volunteer his services at the print shop – luckily he knows how to handle the machines. He quickly moves into their spare upstairs room before also moving in his “foreign wife”, Annabelle, and a bunch of other non-Japanese people by which time he’s well and truly wrested control of the mini printshop empire away from the mild mannered Mikio and caused a degree of local panic in the process.

The Kobayashis are “hospitable” people. To begin with they don’t mind having this “old friend” hanging around and helping him out by letting him stay and work in the shop. When he suddenly introduces his wife without warning they may feel he’s taking advantage but anyway they go along with it. Annabelle, from “Brazil”, or was it “Bosnia”, gives the impression of someone who is always pretending their language skills aren’t as good as they really are so people let their guard down around her. She teaches “salsa”, apparently, and starts to get on Natsuki’s nerves by usurping her position as resident English speaker.

The town itself is not quite as charitable as the Kobayashis as evidenced by the older lady who keeps dropping by with petitions for the neighbourhood watch to which she’d also like to recruit the ladies of the house. She’s worried about the increasing number of “foreigners” in the area which she now feels is becoming “dangerous” as a consequence. That’s not to mention the proposed “beautification” plan for the park (which really means getting rid of all those people who sleep there in cardboard boxes). That said, though neither of the women is particularly interested in joining the neighbourhood watch or against the idea of non-Japanese people coming to live in their town, they go along with the woman and her plans not to rock the boat. They run a business here after all so they have an interest in keeping the town stable and in maintaining good social relations with their neighbours, so it makes sense to just put up with whatever bigoted nonsense they’re spouting, right?

For all their “lascivious dancing”, topless sunbathing, and “promiscuous immorality”…the foreigners are quite clearly not as much of a problem as the underlying hypocrisy which runs through the Kobayashis’ world. When Kagawa asks about Mikio’s previous wife, he says “she got sick” leading him to think Mikio is a widower which isn’t quite true but is a less embarrassing for explanation for Mikio to offer than what really happened. There’s an obvious tension between Mikio and Natsuki as well as with the recently returned older sister. As soon as Kagawa begins to work his magic, driving a pneumatic drill right into all of those tiny cracks and fractures which exist between a husband and a wife, everything begins to fall apart though in an equally quiet and subtle fashion. However, people have need of their fantasies and even after Kagawa has exposed the holes in their marriage, Mikio and Natsuki seem content to simply paper over their differences and go back to pretending everything’s fine just like before.

A surrealist’s meditation on xenophobia, social mores, and what happens when a caged bird decides to be free, Hospitalité is a suitably nuanced, not to mention frequently amusing, look at contemporary small town mentality. Everyone is so invested in maintaining a particular quality of personal truth, be it in a hospitable place which thinks the answer to people cluttering up the park with their cardboard boxes is to “beautify” the area by throwing them out, or a neighbourhood watch group that’s all egos with a local place for local people mentality, that maintaining the lies is much more important than solving the underlying problem. Koji Fukada’s farcical approach to the absurdity of everyday life is a good natured and humorous one, but the problems at its core are all too real.


Hospitalité was released on DVD in the US by Filmmovement and still appears to be in print though the distributor’s website is constant 403.

English subtitled trailer:

Au revoir l’été ほとりの朔子 (ほとりの朔子 Koji Fukada, 2013)

sakuko_mainReview of this kind of cute French new wave influenced Japanese indie up at UK Anime Network. I kind of liked this one – it’s getting another screening at The Proud Archivist on Tuesday if you couldn’t make it today. Alternatively you can watch it online via FilmDoo!


It’s generally a mistake to judge a film by its title, but catching sight of  “Au revoir l’été” on the poster or DVD cover is going to tell you several things about the film you’re about to see. First of all it’s obviously in French – a bold choice for a Japanese film, set entirely in Japan, for release in English speaking territories. Loosely translated it means “Goodbye, Summer” and closely channels the film’s obvious inspiration point Eric Rohmer’s Conte d’été (A Summer’s Tale). If you’re thinking a bit French new wave, stories filled with youthful ennui and complicated romances – well, you’re not far wrong. Indie director Koji Fukada brings the new wave’s characteristic existential angst and romantic yearnings to the Japanese small, seaside town in this unexpectedly engaging odyssey into summer themed nostalgia.

Sakuko (Fumi Nikaido) is a slightly lost young girl who finds herself on an unexpected summer trip with her aunt to house sit for another of her aunts in a small, seaside town where she can get down to studying for a second go at her university entrance exams. Summers being what they are, she finds herself less studying than getting to know her aunts’ home town and their strange collection of childhood friends including old flame of one (or maybe all) of the sisters, former thug and current “hotel” manager Ukichi (Kanji Furutachi). Rounding out the band are Ukichi’s college age daughter Tatsuko and Fukushima refugee nephew Takashi (Taiga). Matters become even more complicated when another professor and sometime lover of Sakuko’s aunt Makie, Nishida, turns up to drip sleaze all over our lovely summer vacation. Like the “hotel” that Ukichi runs which turns out to be strictly a rent by the hour affair, Nishida may look presentable and spout a lot of fine talk but underneath he’s anything but genteel. Idyllic as summer holidays can be, there’s always a lesson to be learned somewhere even if you don’t quite see it at the time.

If you had to come up with a one word descriptor for Au revoir l’été, the one you’d go for would be “wistful”. It’s full of nostalgia for those long languid summers that you only experience at a certain time of life (or perhaps never even actually experienced other than in films and books) where days of listless possibility stretch out in front of you as if the summer really will go on forever. Until, of course, it ends abruptly and rudely just you started to feel it was getting started. Walks by the beach, coffee shops, birthday parties for new friends and a tentative romance with a wounded and clueless local boy – it’s the classic French new wave summer holiday.

Perhaps deliberately, it all has the feeling of a dream, as if its charms are born of the wilful ignoring of painful truths. The sun maybe shining (well, mostly), the river water’s warm and the birds are singing but – there’s always a looming shadow of something less pleasant lurking in the background. In a fairly ordinary way, it has to be said – not in a David Lynch sort of way, just in the sort of way you forget that mean thing your boss said to you last week because “you’re on holiday!” and you’ll think about it later. The “hotel” is a love hotel, the famous professor is a jealous womaniser and Takashi is a Fukushima refugee who’s almost glad about the disaster because it got him out of a bad family situation he has no desire to return to. You can have a really great time right now by not thinking about any of these things, but sooner or later you’ll have to leave the beautiful summer beaches for the muddy path back to reality. No one can live “on holiday” forever.

Nothing really happens, no grand life changing events but somehow things have progressed by the end and everyone seems to have reached a new clarity about themselves and their lives for better or worse. If the film has a major fault it’s that it loses more than it gains by casting the net a little wide and trying to deal with everybody’s stories all at once rather than focusing Sakuko’s viewpoint and radiating out from there. The heart of the film is with its younger protagonists, but it doesn’t  shy away from showing us what might become of them with the unhappy grown ups always in the background. Mikie and Ukichi, who’ve both had their share of disappointments in life, seem weighed down by regrets and compromises that even the summer air can’t ameliorate. The most clued up character is the almost cynical Tatsuko who seems immune’s to summer’s charms and is willing to see things as they are and exploit them to her own advantage.

Like many summers, Au revoir l’été is really far too long by the end but it’s so whimsically charming that you don’t quite mind. Another standout performance from Fumi Nikaido anchors the film through her fairly passive, though perceptively gifted, Sakuko and each of her summer companions is so engagingly drawn that there’s always plenty to think about. Which is just as well because this isn’t the sort of film to offer many answers so much as be content in observation. Charming, intriguing and at times beguiling Au revoir l’été may not set the world alight but it does bathe it in a warm summer glow.