Harmony: Written by Koji Yamamoto, directed by Takashi Nakamura and Michael Arias. Starring: Miyuki Sawashiro, Reina Ueda, Aya Suzaki, Yoshiko Sakakibara. Running Time: 120 minutes. Based on the novel by Project Itoh.
**a minor spoiler warning, since I need to discuss at least one of the plot twists in detail to offer any depth here**
Harmony is the sort of big-concept, animated sci-fi story that I usually love. Plus, the fact that it’s an original concept in an era of increasingly slavish devotion to endlessly rehashing old brands in the name of financial security makes films like this even more crucial to the artistic health of the world of cinema. And yet, while there is a lot in the designs and visual style of the film to praise, it sadly falls just a bit too short of doing justice to its lofty concept.
Our setting is a world where super-advanced medical technology has created a particularly extreme 99%-vs.-1% divide- those who can afford it live in bizarrely over-designed super-cities (Tokyo is now sickeningly pink), where the spread of a philosophy called Lifeism has led to a society where you actually have no choice but to be physically healthy. Special contact lenses apparently connected to the internet flash automatic warnings and recommendations on how to avoid potentially-harmful dangers, or even if the food you are about to eat is a bit too fatty (the lenses lend themselves to a particularly dark- but effective- piece of black humor later on).
Toan grew up in this world, but as a child she was taken under the wing of a young girl named Miache, who instinctively realized how stifling Lifeism could get. She, Toan, and a third girl in their group hatched a plan to shock the system by committing suicide together, but the third lost her nerves and told her parents, which lead to Toan being rescued at the last minute. Miache, it seems, was reached too late, and so she was apparently the only one to die.
Since then, Toan has risen to join the ranks of the Helix Inspectors, a seemingly independent, quasi-military group allied with the WHO to enforce trade treaties regarding medical equipmen,t and to also work to spread Lifeism philosophy. She’s developed a bit of a rogue streak, trading her own med supplies for alcohol and other delights, and as a result gets called back to Tokyo for a chewing out when, seemingly by coincidence, global tragedy begins; thousands of people in the sanctum-esque inner cities, many of them using the latest in medical technology (including those contact lenses), commit mass-suicide in a myriad of brutal ways. It’s soon announced that this was an attack perpetrated by a fringe group that had developed a “code” (don’t ask how it’s supposed to work) that can take over people’s minds, seeking to overturn the staid order imposed by Lifeists and return people to a more instinctive, “natural” state.
This is where the first twist comes in, and this is the one I need to spoil to explain why I knocked this movie in its rating as much as I did, so final warning. Okay? Okay.
Turns out Miache isn’t dead; after she tried killing herself, she was whisked away to far-off Baghdad for experimentation, where she came into contact with the fringe group developing the aforementioned code, and has since apparently taken over the group and is driving the spate of terror attack/suicides. Toan discovers this shortly after she’s reinstated to help investigate the incidents, which immediately lends a more tragic and personal edge to her search.
It’s in this second half that the movie starts to trip over itself, after a pretty solid first half, but the twist of Miache being alive isn’t the reason. The real reason is that she just isn’t a very interesting character once we start to get to know her. She only speaks in grand philosophical preacher terms about what human life should really be like, and how Lifeist society “kills with kindness.” She also gets a pointedly tragic backstory later on that is entirely unnecessary, and actually weakens any residual interest I had in her as a person.
To be fair though, Miache isn’t the only character suffering from Exposition Fairy bites. A lot of the broader messages and social commentaries that the film tries to engage in are hammered in way too bluntly; nearly all the dialogue consists of explanatory speeches. It’s a shame, because there are some great questions put forth in the movie that would otherwise make it a great think piece, if only it could get out of its own way.
Toan does at least get some good pathos for her character; there’s something refreshing in how openly she admits that she doesn’t really care at all about saving the world or about any one philosophy over the other- she just wants personal answers about what happened to her friend, nothing more. The scene where she admits this ended up being way more intriguing for me than any of the other, admittedly flashy, shots showing off the impressive designs of the world. If we’d had a few more moments like that, this could have become a cult classic. As it is, it’s an intriguing and well-animated action piece, but ultimately one that doesn’t push the boundaries of thought as much as it wished it did.