‘Harmony’ and the Battle of Ultimate Terms

One of my favorite discoveries this year has been finding an art cinema within driving distance of my apartment.

Don’t get the wrong impression: I don’t think of myself as a cultured connoisseur of les films artistique.  But I like having such a theater close at hand because it gives me opportunities to see movies with limited releases – independent films like Jeff Nichols’s recent sci-fi opus Midnight Special, or re-releases of classic films like Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight.  And, of course, there’s all that lovely foreign cinema.  Just last month, I was lucky enough to catch a showing of The Empire of Corpses, the first in a trilogy of animated films based on the novels of the late Japanese science-fiction writer Project Itoh.

Despite some stunted attempts to ponder the nature of the soul, Corpses was mostly enjoyable as a well-crafted, entertaining adventure-romp with a bit of emotional depth.  Naturally, it made me excited for the next installment in the series, Harmony (stylized as <harmony/>), which had a two-day release only last week.  But Harmony was not the popcorn flick its predecessor led me to expect; in fact, within the first fifteen minutes of the film, I was convinced that I had found a movie worth writing about for my next blog entry.

The premise of Harmony situates it neatly in the dystopian genre.  In the wake of a global disaster called “The Maelstrom,” human society has rebuilt itself under the governance of an administrative system led by the World Health Organization.  The result is a rapidly-expanding culture dedicated to promoting good health – defined as the preservation of human life at all cost – and an all-powerful “Amedicstration” to keep watch over its citizens and make certain they uphold society’s new principles.  This involves constant surveillance through special contact lenses (which also provide warnings to people who might be tempted to endanger their health through, say, overeating), the elimination of certain dangerous habits from everyday life, and a permanent, multipurpose piece of technology called the WatchMe implanted into every person upon reaching adulthood.  Once activated, WatchMe regulates your weight, metabolism, virility, and other biological functions; one character even complains that it determines women’s breast sizes, resulting in a stifling conformity of body types.

The complainer in question is Tuan Kirie, our protagonist (I hesitate to call her our “heroine”), a WHO agent who secretly despises this highly regulated, sanitized world.  Her ambassadorial job allows her to live on the borders of civilization, visiting nations that the Admedicstration hasn’t yet assimilated and indulging in little health-vices like tobacco and alcohol whenever she can get her hands on them – partly because she enjoys them, but also, partly, as a statement of rebellion.

Tuan’s resentment of the Admedicstration stems from a pact made with her high school friend, an eerie and enigmatic girl named Miach Mihie.  Miach, disgusted with the way the WatchMe system removes personal agency and individuality, convinces her two closest friends to commit suicide with her as an act of revolt against Japan’s life-valuing society.  Miach succeeded, but Tuan failed, and their third friend – Cian – chickened out and reported them both, resulting in rounds of therapy for the two survivors.  Now, years later, Tuan is called back to Japan, where her investigation of a sudden rash of unexplained suicides brings her face to face with certain ghosts from her past she hadn’t expected to see again.

"I hate this country."
“I hate this country.”

As fascinating as that sounds, Harmony is still a film that suffers from some grave artistic failings.  I’ve already seen a handful of mixed and negative reviews online, and I don’t want to be accused of ignoring the bad bits and claiming that this picture is flawless.  So before I sing the movie’s praises, I think it worthwhile to tally its faults:

  1. The entire movie relies far too much on expository narration to get information across. Tuan seems to feel the need to explain every aspect of the Admedicstration, every character’s psychological profile, every important memory from her past.  As the film went on, I found myself groaning internally whenever she began to narrate again – not only because her constant chatter violates that old storyteller’s adage of “Show, Don’t Tell,” but also because the monologues themselves are of inconsistent quality, with endlessly repeated phrases, frequent lapses into cliché, and explanations of points the viewer might just as easily have picked up with a few nonverbal cues.  Actual dialogue between characters offers little escape from this dreary drudgery: conversations are often just waves of technobabble explaining the science-fiction concepts that drive the plot.
  2. Though the film is animated, there’s a great deal of visually discombobulating “camera” work. Directors Michael Arias and Takashi Nakamura show us some truly jaw-dropping images (especially the towering, organic-looking architecture of future Japan), but often the experimentation with CGI only succeeds in giving the viewer motion sickness.  There’s a particular “circling” shot early in the film, where the camera pans around and around Tuan and Cian eating lunch in a restaurant, that made me glad I hadn’t eaten before the movie started.
  3. The pacing in this movie is slower than an arthritic tortoise trying to wade through molasses.
  4. While the setting might justify it to an extent, Harmony also keeps too much of an emotional distance from its audience. Side characters (even ones as important as Cian) are given limited characterization beyond their one-note personalities, and some viewers may find Tuan challenging to connect with because she herself has so few emotional ties.  I’ve seen some reviewers get very harsh in their descriptions of her, and while I don’t think it’s fair to call her a “flat” character – or even an unlikable one – I have to admit that, for the bulk of the movie, I sympathized with her only insofar as I shared her contempt for the invasive and conformist WatchMe system.

It’s that fourth item, however, that brings me to my main point – and (I contend) to the principal strength of this film.  I almost hesitate to post this review for fear of retreading ground I already covered in my discussion of The Prisoner, but I believe Harmony gives us some new things to think about – especially when we look at the conflict it presents as a battle between ultimate terms.

“Ultimate terms,” or “God-terms and devil-terms,” are a concept first named by rhetorician Richard Weaver.  According to Weaver, rhetoric works by appealing to certain human values, and the strongest appeals are always those to the highest possible value – a “God-term,” an ultimate good that doesn’t need to be questioned, a word you might invoke like the name of a deity of old.  Your ultimate terms will likely depend on where you fall on the political spectrum; today, you might use terms like Freedom, Equality, or the Accumulation of Capital in order to justify certain actions, just as you might also mention the names of devils like Tyranny, Bigotry, or Exploitation when referring to forces or persons that embody those ultimate evils.  The danger, of course, is that lesser goods may sometimes be placed in the ultimate position – and, as Harmony shows, the social consequences of such a mistake can be dire.

The Admedicstration is not subtle about its ultimate terms.  Their social program is explicitly referred to as a religion, called “Lifeism,” and Tuan complains more than once about the new “God of Health” who watches over the civilized world.  Admittedly, one of Harmony’s artistic weaknesses is that, outside of Tuan’s expository narration, this rhetorical worship-language isn’t shown or explored in detail; we hear brief snatches of it in the voice on a public loudspeaker, we sense it in the subtext of conversations between ordinary folk.  But what little we hear does succeed in cuing us in to the God-terms and devil-terms of Tuan’s society.  In this utopian future, Health is good.  Death is bad.  Anything that contributes to the preservation of life – community spirit, cautious behavior, abstinence from unhealthy food – is a subordinate good to the God-term of Health.  Anything that leads to bad health – especially violence – is subordinate to that great evil, Death.  Consequently, life-ending acts like murder and suicide are not only criminal, but unthinkable, tantamount to blasphemy.

One consequence of the Admedicstration’s rhetoric is that it creates a world similar to the Village in The Prisoner, where citizens are trained to look out for each other’s wellbeing, and “Love thy neighbor” is a common adage.  However, just like in The Prisoner, something about this community spirit rings false: as Tuan explains in her narration, the love that most people show is only a dogmatic response programmed into their minds by their overbearing guardians.  When her mother weeps at the successful suicide of Tuan’s friend, she weeps not out of genuine grief (in fact, she had never even met Miach), but out of a general belief that death is an unthinkable horror – an attitude programmed into her mind through social indoctrination, not a “true” human response to death that flows from individual experience, from closeness or attachment.  In fact, Miach’s rebellious attitude seems to have stemmed in part from her belief that the emotions associated with violence and death are more real than the superficial “love” that the rest of the world so values.  Fear, exhilaration, even sexual desire – these are deeply personal responses, not motivated or dictated by outside influences like money, religion, or – most importantly – the worship of good health.

The push for universal Lifeism doesn’t end with rhetoric, and neither do the similarities to The Prisoner.  Social harmony and good health are elevated above individual choice to the point where treatment – lengthy, intensive “therapy” – is prescribed for people whose behavior or attitudes run counter to the health-based system of order.  This treatment, like the rhetoric of this world, is always framed in moral terms (an “Emergency Ethics Center,” where attempted suicides like Tuan are sent, is alluded to more than once).  But the masterminds behind the Amedicstration take this process a step further than the masters of the Village ever did.  Around the middle of the film, Tuan discovers a conspiracy to conceal the existence of a technology called <harmony/> (hence the movie’s title), which, through some complicated neurological techno-jargon, not only suppresses human will, but actually removes it via rewiring of the brain.

Harmony

If successfully activated through the WatchMe system, <harmony/> would create a world of truly “perfect” harmony, where the decision-making center of each individual’s brain is only allowed to make choices that benefit their own health and that of all humanity.  (It would also be a world that, I suspect, would’ve made Patrick McGoohan snarl and foam at the mouth if he lived to see it.)  Even in the “present” world of the film, there are many who express shock at this notion – it seems the equivalent of a living death, a life without a soul – and even the conspirators themselves regard it as a last resort to be used only if another “Maelstrom” seems imminent.

Life without a soul – is that really preferable to a world where violence can bring about death and suffering?  After all, the “soul” – or “choice,” or “free will,” or whatever you like to call it – is an ultimate term itself, with its own dedicated devotees.  Think of Patrick Henry’s famous cry of “Give me liberty or give me death!” or of that oft-repeated declaration from Pixar’s WALL-E: “I don’t want to survive.  I want to live!”  Whatever the case, many people (including this reviewer, but that’s beside the point) believe there must be some ultimate Good beyond mere physical wellbeing, and spiritual freedom seems to fit naturally into that ultimate slot.  What Harmony depicts, then, is a clash between those two ultimate terms: Harmony (associated with the Admedicstration’s emphasis on the preservation of life) on one side and Free Will (associated with Miach’s individualism) on the other.  Given the religious-flavored language of Lifeism, we might even compare this struggle to a battle between God and the devil.  For both sides, the terms are absolute; the stakes are only the most important things in the world.

For most inhabitants of Harmony’s world, health wins out – and on this score, the movie finally stops telling and starts showing.  When a terrorist group threatens to employ mind-control technology that forces ordinary people to kill their neighbors, many citizens go so far as to make “martyrs” of themselves to the God of Health: they commit suicide rather than risk being used to bring about death for their neighbors, friends, and families.  In their minds, the larger health of all humanity is ultimate – even if it means their own deaths.

This all stands in sharp contrast to Miach.  Though she doesn’t state her God-terms as plainly as the Admedicstration does, it’s easy to tell that Miach holds private experience as the most valuable aspect of human life.  Rejecting the interconnectedness of her world’s social media, she prefers books (“Just me, alone with the pages”) and business cards (since they allow you to share information only with the people you choose to, instead of having all of your data – height, weight, blood glucose levels, educational background, marital status – simply pop up on their special contact lenses whenever they look at you).  Her preferences seem alien to her two friends, but her rhetoric nonetheless holds a strong appeal for Tuan, who finds that Miach can offer her a level of emotional intimacy she can’t get from anyone else.

Tuan and Miach 2
Teenage Tuan and Miach in a flashback.

Eventually, an explanation is given for Miach’s radically divergent attitude, though I’ll leave out the details to avoid spoiling an important reveal.  Suffice it to say that she thinks of herself as a person defined, even created, by certain personal experiences (which we learn about, in disturbingly graphic detail, late in the story).  In the flashbacks showing her decision to end her own life, we see that she begins to regard death as something ultimately private: killing is the ultimate statement of rebellion against the overbearing “health gods,” suicide is the ultimate claim of ownership over her own body.  For Miach, the individual will, the individual experience, is ultimate – even if it means her own death.  In this battle of ultimate terms, both sides have found a cause for which they are willing to give up their lives; they have found gods to whom they are willing to offer themselves as human sacrifices.

To put this conflict in Christian terms (as I am wont to do), I would contend that Harmony depicts a world that has fallen into the worship of an idol.  And in rebelling against this idolatry, Miach and Tuan succeed only in erecting still more idols, which demand still more sacrifices.

Certainly the Admicstration’s sins have more widespread consequences: by subordinating all goods under health (rather than under, say, God), certain other goods – freedom of choice, personal privacy, diversity in body types, the average person’s ability to cope with death – have suffered, atrophied, or been actively wiped out.  The last of these diminished goods bears special relevance to our own age.  The theologian Walter Brueggemann, in his book The Prophetic Imagination, argues that certain cultural trends in contemporary America, ranging from our impulse to sequester the dying in hospices to minor things like placing cheery flowers in hospital rooms, contribute to a “numbness about death” that makes it impossible to properly experience the grief and anxiety we need to remind us of our own mortality.  One character in Harmony mentions that most “modern” (i.e., future) Japanese are so unaccustomed to death that they don’t know how to react to it; we might say the same, or something similar, about many modern Americans.

To be sure, there are worse possible worlds than the one Harmony presents.  If we can ignore the soul-removing technology, I can at least see how a society that shapes its citizens to respect life and commit no violence seems better than an openly oppressive despotism.  It’s worth remembering that Miach’s individualism is an idol of sorts, too; self-centeredness is an impediment to charity, and certainly any ideology that leads a person to commit murder and/or suicide obviously runs afoul of Christian doctrine.  One might also argue that obeying the social obligation to love one’s neighbor isn’t all that different from obeying Christ’s commandment to do the same.  Still, I can’t shake the sense that there is real evil in a world where love-of-neighbor is compulsory, abstract, and notional rather than voluntary, personal, and concrete.  Duty is a useful motivator, but it mustn’t be our ultimate term; we love, not just because we are commanded to, but because God first loved us (1 John 4:19).  Our experiences as fallen and forgiven human beings are what shape our desire to take part in a community of similarly broken, saved persons – loving one another because we know that we, ourselves, are loved beyond imagining.

In a sense, this very sentiment – the notion that our decisions ought to flow from personal experience rather than from abstract principles – is what brings the conflict of Harmony to its resolution.  Though it comes across as a bit emotionally stunted due to all the time the movie spent explaining its concepts instead of properly developing its characters, the story does climax with a genuine “character moment” for Tuan, conveying a sense of how her (clearly romantic) relationship with Miach affected her private emotional life.  Again, without spoiling overmuch, I’ll simply say that Tuan’s final act in the narrative is not motivated by any rational desire for an ultimate Good, but by a visceral, personal, emotional impulse.  It’s an action shaped by experience – shaped, in fact, by a kind of love.  In the end, she makes a real choice – her own choice – to create an exit from a world where individual choice may no longer be possible.

Tuan's Last Act

Of course, whether you find any of this interesting will likely depend on whether you find the film watchable, and I can sympathize with viewers who lose interest before the end.  While The Empire of Corpses would feel at home on a shelf between Indiana Jones and Star Wars, Harmony is more in the style of an art house film.  As I was watching, I was reminded especially of the great Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky: the oppressively gloomy tone, slow pace, philosophical chatter, and hypnotic visuals of Harmony would not feel out of place in one of his strange, heady movies.  This might also help explain some of the negative reviews I’ve seen, since Tarkovsky’s films – especially Solaris, the one that most resembles Harmony on a stylistic level – also sometimes take heat for being slow, talky, pretentious, or emotionally distant.  I don’t mean to suggest that Harmony is anywhere near Tarkovsky’s level of artistry, but I think its strengths and weaknesses lie in the same areas.

Though many viewers have already labeled Harmony a disappointment, you can bet I’ll still be the first to buy it up when it gets a home media release, since I suspect this is a film that will reward repeated viewings.  Just as Tuan and Miach forced their society to call its ultimate terms into question, Harmony forced to me wonder about mine, and I left the theater earnestly pondering my own convictions about the value of life, the value of freedom, the value of individuality.  In a market flooded with dystopias, it’s a real treat to find a story that confronted me with as many difficult questions as Harmony did.

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