50 years after a cataclysmic nuclear war claims tens of millions of lives, the world has developed the tools to create a utopian society. Utilizing a comprehensive and powerful program known as “Watch.me”, the World Health Organization manages the health and emotions of the population. 16 year old Miach Mihie forms a pact with her friends Tuan Kirie and Cian Reikado to kill themselves as an act of protest. While Miach is successful, Tuan and Cian fail. 13 years pass: Cian embraces the utopian society and becomes an adult, while Tuan begrudgingly moves forward with her life as a Helix inspector for the WHO. When a mass suicide rocks the foundation of their supposedly perfect world, Tuan’s investigation leads her on a global quest for the truth as the ghost of her former friend lingers behind every corner.
Going into this movie I was reminded of Psycho Pass. Much like Psycho Pass, Harmony deals with some serious themes of self-determination, free will, and the areas in which technology, psychology and medicine overlap. Ultimately, I would argue that Harmony pulls it off much more cohesively than Psycho Pass did.
To start, Harmony is beautifully animated. The scenery and backgrounds in particular are striking:
The scenery is familiar, yet otherworldly – similar to the concept of a utopian society, there are elements that we recognize, but the organization and crispness of the images is almost too perfect. Unlike Psycho Pass, there’s not a lot of action to spotlight this animation, but I would argue that the contemplative nature of Harmony complements it well.
The story isn’t particularly trailblazing: monolithic government organization oversees the general population via a vast and powerful database following a devastating global conflict that nearly eradicates humanity. However, something that sets Harmony apart from early on is the fact that the Helix inspectors and World Health Organization in general is aware that the picture-perfect world they’ve created is simply a house of cards. There are incredibly powerful and nuanced technologies at work striving to manage the population, but even when they’re operating perfectly, humans still slip through the cracks. Young people in particular strike back at the system by committing suicide, refusing to let their lives be dictated by the watch.me system.
When you consider the suicide crisis within Japan, combined with the high population of NEETs (though it has been falling in recent years) and hikikomoris, the social commentary on Tuan’s resistance to becoming a part of “civilized society” is hard to miss. Harmony proposes that there’s an illusion of freedom: that young people entering adulthood can carve their own path. In reality, the social and economic mobility afforded to them is limited. Everyone has a role to play, and once you’ve crossed that threshold into adulthood, the current of social obligation will carry you through a boring and predictable life until your inevitable death. Rather than jump into those rapids, youth are opting out by refusing to engage in society, or more dramatically, ending their lives. Even if it’s a life of peace and economic stability, individuals want to command their own destiny and lives. They want to issue a “declaration”, in the words of Mihie, that their bodies are their own, even if it means they destroy said bodies to make a point.
Tuan, though not as dramatic as Mihie, still has harsh words for Japan. It’s a place where they “kill you with kindness”: everyone looks the same, reacts the same way to things…emotions are shallow and fleeting. The theme could be overdone quite easily, but Harmony does a good job of balancing Tuan’s annoyance with the world she lives in with a lingering question: what’s the alternative? Is the sterile world they’ve created worth it? Without the watch.me system in place, mankind would revert back to barbarism, murder and destruction. Is it simply the price humanity must pay in exchange for peace and comfort?
It doesn’t take long for the story to dive into the psychology of decision-making, emotions and what constitutes “free will”. These discussions could easily venture into snores-ville, but are paced well and given in bits and pieces that are easier to digest.
I would say that this balance is a recurring theme, and the main reason why Harmony impressed me so much. There are numerous elements in the film that walk a fine line between overdone and glossed over – lean too much one way or the other and it could easily go sour. However, Harmony preserves a respectable balance…fitting, given the title.
For all the quality animation and well-executed discussion and reflection on what it means to have a soul and be able to make your own decisions, the dynamic between Tuan and Miach seemed pretty flat. As the movie goes on you realize more and more that the relationship they had was more than just a simple friendship, but right up until the end there’s not much that complicates it or makes it interesting.
Overall, Harmony is a great film. It carries all the intellectual weight I was hoping for, and brings viewers along for a thrilling ride along with Tuan as she seeks to quell the demons of her past. Harmony keeps you questioning and engaging with the material all the way until the credits roll, and you’ll be pondering the ramifications of the ending for a while. You might ask yourself: Is it a happy ending? To which I’d ask -What does it mean to be happy anyways?
Harmony will be enjoying a limited release on 5/17 and 5/18. You can purchase tickets here.