You can't be blamed for wondering, quite a while into Koji Fukada's Harmonium, just exactly what kind of movie it is. Tense family melodrama? Middle-aged infidelity thriller? Study of repression? Psycho-vengeance genre-spree? All of the above? Maybe the measured, calm, withholding pace of the film, particularly in its first half, should be its own ominous clue. Pots with tight lids eventually blow.
Fukada introduces us to a typical nuclear-family micro-unit: Dad Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) is an inattentive machinist working his own shop. Mmm Akie (Mariko Tsuisui) is a tense, vocally Christian helicopter-er, hovering over their young daughter, Notaru (Kana Mahiro), who's learning a school piece on their clunky harmonium. The clacking beat of the girl's metronome suggests a life of forced order, and Fukada paces his scenes exactly that way -- without momentum or variation. The strategy doesn't lull us so much as it tunes our ultrasounds for tiny cracks in the façade -- mostly from Tsuisui. Anxious and unpretty, Akie can't hide her pious yet paranoid discomfort with just about everybody, including her little girl.
But then the truth beneath all of this repressed politesse sprouts, and Harmonium turns into a methodical cascade of very bad things, compounded by lust and guilt and retribution and tumbling out over years. Fukada's cautious visual tone doesn't really change, but the characters do, twisting under pressure and closing in on madness. As in the best old-school, James M. Cain–style noir, Fukada's film is eloquent about the fragile privileges of modern urban life, and the hidden lies it can be built upon.