Better living through technology. But at what price? In the best tradition of classic speculative science fiction, Studio 4°C’s animated film Harmony, based on the novel by Project Itoh, examines this question through a mirror darkly. In the future, the world has been reduced by nuclear war and illness into sterile country states complete with regulated borders. Inside those borders, the Admedistration (not a typo) and a militarised version of the World Health Organisation ensure that all good citizens abide by their ever so helpful medical nanites and the WatchMe system, so that their health, happiness, tolerance and peacefulness can be monitored and controlled.
However, not everything is as blissful as it seems. Tuan, a young enforcer for the WHO, is on recall from outside the Admedistration for less than appropriate conduct when her cheerful childhood friend Cian meets her for lunch and promptly commits very public, very gruesome suicide. Along with, Tuan learns, thousands of other citizens at exactly the same time and all in equally nasty manner. Tuan is not as shocked as she might otherwise be, however – in school she, Cian and the enigmatic Miach made a pact: to escape their stifling, dehumanising world by killing themselves. Miach was the only one to succeed, or so Tuan has always thought.
And so begins a detective thriller which in some ways reminded me quite a bit of Ergo Proxy in both style and execution. However, where Ergo Proxy is a dingy, grimy vision of the future, Harmony is polished and squeaky clean – on the surface. The almost constant narration (Tuan’s measured and fairly passionless inner thoughts) make for a dreamlike undertaking which feels a little too intellectually deliberate to be truly emotionally engaging, and what should be the nightmarish underbelly of this perfect social structure is revealed to only vaguely horrify with its themes of hidden brutality, alternative facts and cult-like sentiments.
If you can manage the tone, though, and are in the right space to sit through what feels a little like a glacially paced narrative, Harmony is visually enthralling, on par with some of the greats of science fiction anime – Ghost in the Shell for one. The colours in the rendering, the vast sweeping scenes of both urban and native beauty, and the thought that has gone into realising and committing to visuals Itoh’s utopia-in-crisis, are well worth the run time. There’s also a lot of anger underlying this story – again perhaps not surprising considering the author’s battle with cancer – and the deeper implications that rise to the surface of reading this film are things that will likely stay with you, a low-level disturbance that you won’t be able to shake, for at least the rest of the day if not week.
For an animated movie, even a flawed one, to leave that kind of impression on your psyche, even in the short term, is no actual mean feat. Harmony is ambitious and only really fails in its disconnect from a more visceral viewing experience. But perhaps that was always its raison d’etre – to reflect back on the viewer the ultimate futility of a perfect world while there are humans still in it.