The Problem of Harmony

Right from the start I get the distinct impression that Harmony takes a lot of cues from Urobuchi. The basic premise, as written by Project Itoh, already has a great deal in common with – what else – Psycho-Pass: a futuristic dystopia where the government has become a very literal nanny state that monitors its citizens’ mental and physical wellness, where everyone is online all the time, and machines (nano or otherwise) report their condition to a central state server. Where Psycho-Pass is most concerned with citizens’ moral character, Harmony puts a greater emphasis on health: in this future Earth, people do not need to suffer from illness, old age, and everyone is a loving and selfless citizen. There is no poverty, as far as territories controlled by the World Health Organization are concerned. The always-on augmented reality lens guides every citizen to make responsible dietary and health choices. All medical care appears to be free and managed by the state.

This could have been stunning, if not for the cockroach in the soup, so to speak.

The obvious preoccupations it shares with Psycho-Pass is the deep fear that, coddled and under state surveillance, people lose their individuality and autonomy. The haunting ghost-of-suicide-past turned terrorist, Mihie Miach,* is a close match for the violent mastermind Makishima Shougo down to their color scheme: both are hyperintelligent, bookishly smart, pale-haired, and extremely charismatic – and both are ideologues who abhor what they consider an unnatural peace. As the Sibyl System of Psycho-Pass hides a sinister secret, so does the WatchMe/Medcare system present in Harmony.

* For no reason I can discern, all the Japanese characters have Japanese surnames but Irish first names: Miach, Tuan, Nuadha, Cian. It’s fairly beside the point – they are culturally, of course, Japanese – and appears to be there for a little color or to mark that it’s an exotic far future. ‘Miach’ is pronounced ‘Miaha’.

If, at base, protagonist Inspector Kirie Tuan has a good deal in common with Urobuchi’s Inspector Tsunemori Akane, in personalities they couldn’t be more different. While Akane is loving and socially connected, Tuan resents civilized society and avoids Japan; instead she pursues border conflicts, viewing combat as a self-medication method. She harbors a deep guilt that she failed to complete the suicide pact she had with Miach, and holds up Miach as an ideal she couldn’t live up to, so much so she has grown her hair out and styles it like Miach used to. She holds those around her in contempt and loathes her own family, and has few connections to her peers. I like her, though. She’s complex, a bit queer, and reminds me of Kusanagi Motoko.

The cockroach in the soup is Miach’s past.

Being a more sophisticated production than the usual otaku-bait, Harmony doesn’t bother with much fanservice (obligatory shower scene where we glimpse Tuan’s nipples; Tuan’s bizarre uniform), but – I’m guessing this is the fault of the source material – you do get a bad feeling when it turns out that Miach isn’t Japanese at all, but that her parents adopted her. She was a war orphan from Chechnya and witnessed brutal violence as a child, a foreigner not just to Japan but to its enforced peace.

In the last 30 minutes or so of the film’s 120 minutes, we get an expository dump where Miach reveals that as a child she was kept at a ‘prostitution base’ and repeatedly raped by Russian soldiers. This is described in graphic detail, presumably to fulfill that all-important Gritty and Very Mature quota (I checked; the same details are included in the source novel, word for word). It’s all very routine. It also sours everything prior to this, including making Miach’s sexuality – she is a lesbian – possibly an artifact of trauma. We could’ve gotten a Psycho-Pass-alike where everyone important is a woman and the dystopia is even more brutal, featuring an interesting protagonist chasing a whodunnit terrorist plot perpetrated by a woman she used to admire. Instead we get… that. It’s not only terrible; it is boring. The scene where Miach tells all while Tuan cries for her (because Miach no longer has the awareness to be sad for herself, &c) couldn’t be more trite. It’s not moving or even shocking. It’s banal. It’s failed pathos.

There’s also an odd – and oddly uncomfortable – tangent into an unspecified ‘ethnic minority’ (Miach is one) that has inbred to the point that their recessive gene is present in all its members: the lack of an ‘active consciousness’ (which as far as I can tell is absolutely not an actual neuroscience thing) or human awareness, which means they… don’t feel pain or fear? But can make extremely rational decisions? I’m not sure, it makes about as much sense as it sounds, which is a problem when the plot hinges on this. Miach, it turns out, doesn’t want to make everyone commit suicide or murder-suicide because she’s hateful; rather, she uses the terrorist threat – of being able to mind-control individuals into committing suicide or murder – to force the hand of the Harmony Project, which once activated removes the ‘active consciousness’ from everyone connected to Medcare. This way, she claims, humanity will no longer feel pain or fear, and everyone can be exactly as selfless and loving as societal rules make them pretend to be. Miach once advocated for liberty from the nanny state, but at the end, she now decides there is no use for human individuality, no use for autonomy.

It ends on exactly as bleak a note as you’d expect, with Tuan professing romantic love for Miach at the very last before shooting her (whether one counts them tragic lesbians is up to you). Project Harmony activates. The last we see of this world is a visualization showing that Harmony has covered the globe. And then, silence.

So, is it good?

As I said, it’s more sophisticated than the usual rank of otaku-bait. It’s a very bleak story from start to finish. No one is offered anything like happiness. There’s nothing palliative about this. How badly the cockroach ruins this is up to you: I felt it was terrible storytelling and unnecessary, but doesn’t entirely mar the whole. Is it much better than a lot of things, in this medium and not? Absolutely. Does it really succeed at carrying out what it has to say? No – it’s too incoherent in parts, the faux-science is too internally inconsistent to really work (and I’ve accepted a lot of faux-neuroscience in my fiction), and it’s too reliant on Tuan’s flashbacks to her time with Miach. The flashbacks tend to be repetitious in content, taking up a lot of screentime without revealing anything new about Tuan or Miach or their relationship – much of which becomes clear by the second flashback or so, let alone the fiftieth.

Aesthetically though, I sort of appreciate the bleakness and I enjoy Tuan as a character, and of course I wish it’d all been better. At the end of the day, it’s worth watching enough, and visually pleasing, so there is that.