Reviewby Nick Creamer,
The history of mankind is a history of suffering and disorder, societies clashing and individuals rebelling against their world. But in the modern age, nearly all of these ills have been eradicated. Through a combination of tech implants, carefully regulated nutrition, and an overarching online network, all citizens in highly developed countries now live lives free of conflict, where they are free to pursue whatever happiness their interfaces tell them will make them happy. But two girls were never happy with this order - Miach, the girl whose hatred of this society eventually led her to suicide, and Tuan, the friend she left behind. And as cracks in this society's facade portend a possible end of humanity, Tuan will have to look back to the clues left by her friend, and decide what kind of world she truly wants to create.
The first film in the Project Itoh series, The Empire of Corpses, was a fairly well-composed adventure romp. Its attempts to use zombies to speak to the nature of the human soul were somewhat half-baked, but those issues couldn't prevent it from being a fundamentally entertaining film. While that project was handled by Studio Wit, the second film, Harmony, comes courtesy of Studio 4°C. 4°C have a reputation that outstripes their output - they're one of the more arthouse-oriented anime studios, known for producing films like Mind Game and Tekkonkinkreet. With the director of Tekkonkinkreet splitting duties on Harmony, it seemed likely that this film would be both a more cerebral and more visually compelling production.
Unfortunately, neither of those things turned out to be true.
There are elements of Harmony that are definitely compelling. Perhaps the film's greatest moments are its sequences of near-silence, where protagonist Tuan simply reflects on her days as the camera pans over the deserts and cities of her strange near-future. The sound design also elevates these moments; the movie in general has a strong ear for minimalism in sound, letting wind, light strings, and occasional diegetic percussion do much of the talking. There are sequences of real beauty here, even if they're scattered across a very long film.
Unfortunately, most of the film lets the actual characters do the talking, and those are much less compelling. Harmony takes place in a classic semi-dystopian future, where everyone's biology and actions are regulated by a series of implants and an always-watchful government. Crime and disease have largely disappeared in this world, and people live upbeat lives that extend far beyond the traditional human lifespan. Everyone does seem a little glassy-eyed, but overall, things look pretty good in this world.
But Tuan does not see it that way. She sees the regulations of this society as stifling, and her own feelings as the only legitimate ones in a sea of cloned nobodies. Tuan's thoughts are guided by the words of her old friend, Miach, who raged at this machine back when they were both teens. Miach's plan to get back at this world was to kill herself in protest, and Tuan was hoping to go with her - but after their attempted suicide, only Tuan was left alive. Now Tuan spends her days working as a helix inspector, investigating illegal gene therapy across the globe while sneering at a world that she feels can't possibly understand her deep, tormented feelings.
The first half hour of Harmony is almost solely dedicated to setting up the relationship between these girls through a series of long, repetitive monologues. The society they exist in is described as “slowly killing us with kindness” at least four times, and when Tuan's mother weeps in relief when she sees her daughter is alive, Tuan responds with the sympathetic “your tears are empty. Society has tricked us into believing we all care about each other.” You could almost believe Harmony is aware its characters' philosophical pretensions sound exactly like the jaded feelings of every other misanthropic teenager - but unfortunately, the dialogue is just far too stilted for that. The writing shifts between wincingly pat (“she was a hardcore idealist who knew too much and hated even more”), tortured in its anti-poetry (“it's like she preferred that true hell to this false heaven”), and the kind of lines you really do believe these teens could spout (“no one bothers wondering if what they synthesize for us could actually be harmful”). On top of that, Tuan's adult dialogue is just as stilted and sophomoric as the flashbacks to her teenage self. It's all quite a slog to get through.
Things don't really improve once the plot actually starts. The narrative of Harmony follows Tuan as she investigates a breakdown in the system, chasing the ghost of her friend as the neural networks that are supposed to protect people end up leading them to murder and suicide. A story like that certainly has the potential to be engaging, but Harmony consistently has far more interest in monologuing than actually making things happen. New characters will be introduced and then immediately start in on the failings of their system, virtually never resembling actual human beings, as if this were a film entirely composed of that one scene where the villain explains why the system is broken. Other lines simply remind you of how absurd the story's central relationship is. When Tuan goes to visit Miach's mother, she wonders “what kind of parents would raise a daughter who romanticized the downfall of humanity” - to which the obvious answer, is, of course, “basically any parent. She's a teenager. Teenagers romanticize the downfall of humanity all the time.”
There's little room for dynamic plot developments in between all these lukewarm speeches, and so Harmony's scifi drama ends being the barest skeleton of a thriller. And even on that level, Harmony doesn't really succeed - the reveal of the title's significance is absurd, and the final plot of the villain relies on too many unlikely contrivances to really evoke any tension. It's frankly frustrating to watch - there's an interesting world here that never gets enough texture to feel real, and some individual moments that speak to either the compelling neurological ideas Harmony wants to explore, or the ways police investigations are altered by the mechanics of this place. But those are incidental, scattered moments, while far too much of Harmony feels like listening to the disjointed ramblings of a nihilistic teenager (except worse, because actual teenagers tend to at least have convincing teenage dialogue).
Harmony's visuals don't even come close to making up for its narrative failings. The film seems to have chosen very basic character designs in order to facilitate consistent switching between traditionally animated and CG sequences, leading to a lot of bland shots of not particularly expressive characters. And far from being a highlight, the direction is often overtly bad - a number of scenes here spin around characters seemingly just to show off the mediocre CG environments, a choice that often deflates the tension in critical moments. Other scenes hold on flat shots for far too long, or simply go back and forth between dead-on portrait framing as the characters monologue bad philosophy at each other. The one interesting visual element worth mentioning is the style used for Tuan's conference calls; those are done in a compelling, almost statue-esque form of CG that's actually far more expressive than the normal designs. But overall, for a feature film, Harmony is astonishingly unimpressive both in terms of general visual direction and animation. At least the dub is fairly professional, though Christopher Bevins seems a little too focused on his Russian accent to hit all of his emotional beats.
Harmony comes in a standard bluray case with a slipcase cover. The release includes the film on DVD and bluray, as well as a code for digital HD download, though there aren't any other physical extras. The bluray includes both the dub you may have heard in theaters, as well as the original Japanese track with subtitles (which I found somewhat merciful, since they at least introduce some ambiguity as to whether the writing was just as bad in Japanese). The disc also includes the standard promotional videos and trailers (both an original Japanese promotional video and some English trailers), along with the one substantive extra: a video roundtable starring the central cast of the English dub.
That roundtable unfortunately doesn't offer too many new insights about the production. While commentary tracks often reveal interesting quirks of either production or dubbing due to the casual nature of the conversations, this is more a strict promotion for the film, and thus the main actors mainly just describe the central features of the film, as well as alluding to how it's vaguely relevant to modern society. 1984 and Brave New World are unsurprisingly brought up, but the selling of the film's philosophical merits are fortunately brief. More interesting are the later questions about favorite scenes, as well as their thoughts on each of their own characters - pretty much everyone agrees that the lunch scene with Tuon's old friend was their favorite moment. And the actors are in general agreement on the fact that free will is probably a good thing, which was a relief.
Overall, I can't say I'd recommend Harmony to anyone but the most diehard of Project Itoh fans. Even if you found this story's underlying ideas compelling, the film does little to elevate its material - it's a talk-heavy and visually uninspired production with nearly no actual strengths. Harmony wants to be a story about the relationship between two women, and how their relationship reflects the philosophy of this larger society - but the writing is just not good enough to make either those characters or the ideas they're engaging with at all convincing. An unfortunate failure all around.
Overall (dub) : D+
Story : D
Animation : D+
Art : C-
Music : B
+ There are some occasional nice scenes where the background art and sound design take over, creating a gently contemplative, melancholy tone.
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