This review is spoiler-free.
In 2014, noitaminA announced they would animate the three novels written by the late Japanese sci-fi author Project Itoh (伊藤計劃, Itō Keikaku): Genocidal Organ (虐殺器官, Gyakusatsu Kikan), <harmony/> (ハーモニー, Hāmonī), and The Empire of Corpses (死者の帝国, Shisha no Teikoku). Harmony opened in Japanese theaters in November 2015.
Despite Itoh’s relative popularity, the works have garnered little appreciation outside Japan, in our opinion. This review has been written to share our appreciation of Harmony, and encourage more people to write it. As such, We will cover Gyakusatsu Kikan next week. Whether there will be a review of The Empire of Corpses is still unsure due to the specific circumstances mentioned above (which, in our view, has a very real impact on its credentials as a “proper” Itoh work).
Now, let’s get to our review, shall we? It comes with a guiding question, one which may sound somewhat bold, but hear us out: could Harmony be, quite simply, the very best anime movie to have been released in the past few years?
<harmony/> is a production of Studio 4°C. Although AKIRA animation director Nakamura Takashi’s position as director may raise expectations as to the quality of the sakuga, this will not be the focus of this particular piece, as we’ll discuss the area where Harmony truly delivers a memorable experience: its writing. While it may not be as pleasant as worldwide hit Your Name. (nor as accessible for that matter), it provides its viewers with a genuinely thought-provoking experience, one that gives it an unmistakable identity; to the point where Genocidal Organ may be the only work to compare it with, at least among relatively recent anime productions.
The story takes place thirteen years after the most horrific tragedy in human history, The Maelstrom, which killed millions and millions of people. Tuan, our heroine, has grown up in a society which, as a consequence of this disaster, has developed itself with one aim in mind: to be ever healthier. This goal has led to the development of a system named WatchMe: integrated within each individual and connected to a government-controlled network, it observes the individual and detects every illness before it starts affecting the person and identifies the appropriate cure, effectively creating a perfectly healthy society within which no one can ever fall ill. This society is presented at first as a utopia. The novel’s English translation’s eyecatcher describes it as “a perfect world from which there is no escape”, a good indicator of the first way in which Harmony can be described: an anti-utopia.
The distinction with the notion of dystopia here is subtle but important. While a general characteristic of dystopias is their immediately hostile appearance, Itoh first presents his world as “perfect” and something governments and their people strive for. As proof of that, its distinctive feature is healthiness – a far cry from your usual dystopia which is known for, say, books being burnt. What Itoh does is that he takes a model of something that could be considered, at first glance, an ideal society, and reverses the concept to show the dark side of it.
In such a society, there is only one (temporary) escape, which is the one Tuan found: work for an organization (the World Health Organization in her case) that will send her outside the places where the WatchMe-centric social order is in effect. These worlds are certainly very different, but don’t count on Itoh to romanticize the “good ol’ days before we were all controlled”; these are places that have been left behind and are defined by their poverty. There is no kind of beauty to be found there.
One may wonder why Tuan would be so keen on finding a way out of the society that has nurtured her; and it is through this behavior that Harmony starts expressing its social critique. Its world is perfectly healthy – but to this (commendable) end, it also exalts a certain idea of what being a good citizen means; it is thoroughly uniformized, sterilized, even. The buildings, which all look the same, represent this effectively. The result is the one we know in our world as well: those who have different desires are invariably isolayted.
Tuan and her friend Kian met, at a young age, a girl named Miach. Her background was mysterious, but her charisma and intelligence off the charts, and the subversive mode of thought she brought (one of rejection of the WatchMe and the system that is built around it) had the two young girls as if hypnotized. This nurtured Tuan’s mindset, which she has kept to this day.
Miach’s character is, in this sense, the movie’s most interesting character: she is someone with a different mode of thought who carries a weighty past, and her ideals are, at heart, noble: she rejects the social order and is determined about it. But this is contrasted by an ambiguity: we never quite seem to grasp her or the true nature of her thoughts. Furthermore, she tends to reach extreme conclusions, ones which Itoh doesn’t seem to agree with entirely. In fact, the likely “avatar” of the author’s position is none other than Tuan.
As such, she stands out much less: she has none of Miach’s charisma, and her “rebellion” is no more than a temporary escape comparable to a teenager’s run away. But this is natural: just like her creator, she simply doesn’t quite know what to think. From a young age, she’d seen a world of papier-mâché (which Kian’s devolution evidences). On the other hand, she can’t necessarily agree with the places where Miach tries to go; she realizes her ambiguity, and is lost as a result. We’ll see why just below.
This social critique which Itoh develops isn’t necessarily the most convincing aspect of Harmony. The (relatively insignificant) issue is that anyone with a passing interest in Japan or Asia in general would know uniformization is an issue; it doesn’t bring a particularly refreshing angle on a matter that had been widely acknowledged by the world for a while; furthermore, the movie’s grim tone can be considered a barrier when it comes to empathizing with the characters and their causes. But it’s mostly treated elegantly: it shows the characters’ individuality without any indulging in any sort of pathetic victimization. What’s more, these subjects are never bad to bring up (there are always people who need to be reminded of them), and it does help set Harmony within its author’s social context. While even members of western societies will surely find this critique relevant, it is particularly so in a country like Japan where the notion of individuality is different. The issues the work touches upon; even nine years after its release, are far from resolved. It’s a most pertinent reminder that the author is Japanese, and concerned with the issues around him. And finally, it’s a first layer of depth which leads us to the meat of the work.
The word “desires” is the key in this case, for here lies the core of Harmony: a nightmarish descent into a hopeless inspection of the nature of human will.
The post-Maelstrom setting tells us that the author doesn’t hide away from the awfulness of human will. It is what allows (and even leads) people to do the most terrible things. We can’t save ourselves so long as we are conscious beings. Will, although defined as independent, is not attributed any beauty.
Then there is Harmony’s hopeless tone. This has a first effect of bringing us closer to Tuan’s perspective, as she looks at the society around with distant eyes. The social aspect explained above can only be seen as one thing: an ambition to control people’s desires (by making them believe what society wants is what they should want themselves). But as will is inherently free, Itoh cannot agree with any controlling ambition that would affect it.
These two contradictory sides are the core of Harmony: it is a work of incredible vulnerability where the author shares his worst nightmare. He has no clue what to do with our will given it is both the worst thing about us and, as the sign of our intellectual independence, the one thing that makes us humans. He doesn’t want us to lose our identity, but he can’t say he likes us as we are, either. And he has no answer to his most haunting question. Tuan doesn’t, either; this is brilliantly shown by the ending.
The ending is a shock. It is essentially silent, and yet manages, in a stunning development, to reveal everything the story wants to convey in no more than a few seconds. It is electrifying. It elevates the whole experience by being absolutely meaningful and adding that bit of emotional shock this mostly cold story had lacked until then. It is not something that should be talked about too much to people who have yet to watch Harmony; it has to be experienced firsthand. We cannot rob people of the power of this experience.
All of the movie is wonderfully clear. Some may deem it “complicated”, and we should indeed warn this isn’t a very entertaining work and that those going into it should be prepared to think rather than laugh or cry. But it is very direct in expressing its concepts, which are seamlessly integrated in setting, plot and characters; anyone who wants to understand what the movie is about will do so with little difficulty. Its ability to explore and clearly explain profound themes in a runtime of less than two hours is nothing short of spectacular. And the conclusion easily makes up for much of the emotional distance; few works of Harmony’s type can pull off something like it. It is definitely a standout aspect of the movie. And when one reaches it and understands the fragility that is the fabric of much of the work, they will surely find some emotional quality to it, in retrospect.
Nozomi Oomori, a sci-fi literature critic, said of the original novel that it may, in a sense, be the 21st century’s greatest horror novel, and he may be correct to categorize it as such: Itoh’s story is utterly haunting. Only for the best reasons, of course. And if it’s the century’s best horror novel, its brilliant adaptation may as well be the best anime movie in the past three or four years.
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