ヘヴンズ ストーリー (Heaven's story)
Running time: 278 min.
Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman
A long time ago a monster lived in the hills
The monster attacked people
In fear, the people asked God for help
But God did nothing to save them
Takahisa Zeze’s sprawling epic spins a handful of intertwining tales, all couched under the uncaring gaze of heaven, but grappling mightily with issues of murder, revenge, life and death. Zeze’s existential journeys are shot with handheld urgency, tight drama and a deft hand that makes the four and a half hours plus a compelling drama that rarely falters. Divided into nine chapters, "Heaven’s Story" follows, roughly, four main stories. They all intersect narratively and visually, building a complex matrix of associations and reflections on each other, climaxing with a Goya-esque image of revenge and murder gone to an unfortunate, but logical end.
Opening on a group of children playing on a hillside overlooking a moody landscape, a woman’s voice intones the cautionary fable of a misunderstood monster becoming the metaphor and menace of the world. A small troupe of masked actors mimes the story giving it a cultural gravity, distance and artifice that will contrast with the several stories grounded in realism that follow. They function like a Greek chorus. The contemporary dance / puppet troupes of Hyakki Dondoro and Ningyo Butai Yumehina perform magically in this role.
"Heaven’s Story" follows four main stories, adding several subplots, side stories and minor characters. The first is about Sato (Kana Honda at 8 years old, Moeki Tsuruoka as the teenager), whose family is murdered. We see her as a small child reacting to the events that shatter her young life and follow her into her teenage where she insinuates herself into the life of Tomoki (Tomoharu Hasegawa), making him a complicitor and the driving engine for her desire for vengeance. Her vengeance, though remains adolescent and primal, as the killer of her parents and sister has long since past. She just needs someone to do something. She has made Tomoki her hero since she saw him on television as a little girl.
When Sato saw Tomoki on television, he was vowing to avenge the murder of his wife and infant daughter. The killer, Mitsuo (Shugo Oshinari), was caught but given a life sentence due to an insanity plea. Tomoki drifts through life until he meets up with Tai (Nahana), a mixed-up emo rocker. They marry and begin to raise a family. The new family’s bliss is broken when Sato tracks Tomoki down to tell him that the Mitsuo has been released from prison. Sato, who has put things aside for living a happy life, runs across Mitsuo and begins to rekindle old thoughts of vengeance.
Mitsou’s release was guaranteed and expedited by Kyoko (Hako Yamazaki), a doll maker, terrified of being alone after she’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He becomes her ward and keeper, trying to be a good man. And he ultimately does function. He questions, but never understands the insanity that made him take a woman and child’s life.
Woven through this is the story of Kajima (Jun Murakami), a cop, who moonlights as an assassin. He dutifully carries out his part time job, but also sends money to the widow whose husband he retired. Working so much he becomes an absent father to his delinquent young son, Haruki (Kenichi Kurihara). Haruki becomes an inept petty thief, always getting caught, one time beaten, another time breaking his leg in escaping. His father only appears when there’s trouble.
Attempting to finally kill Mitsuo, Sato and Tomoki accidently kill Kyoko, setting in motion the final acts in which Tomoki and Mitsuo must complete the tragedy. This wildly complex story refracts and reflects images, obsessions, places and ideas, heightening the ultimate denouement, a brutal set piece of mayhem and murder.
Zeze piles on contradictory images. Early on, the infant Sato sees a perfectly banal public sculpture of a woman holding a baby toward the sky – an image of hope. Later we see Mitsuo, the killer holding the baby he will soon kill in the same way. An abandoned danchi (housing project) near an old mine not only shows the temporality of the human condition, but functions as a certain heaven, an escape and hideaway. Images of hanami (cherry blossom season) intercut with winter landscapes. Roughly animated images of seagulls are undercut with image of the cookie cutter apartment building called The Seagull. There’s another one called The Rainbow.
And then there’s the cycle of killing and revenge. On one hand, there’s Sato, only wanting revenge. Tomoki tries to forget, but revenge calls him back. Mitsuo has killed for no apparent reason. He now doesn’t want to, but after the death of his beloved Kyoko, he wants revenge. The assassin, Kajima, kills professionally, for money. He himself gets killed, perhaps another professional job. And Sato and Tomoki become responsible for Kyoko’s death. Through seasons and years, the cycles continue becoming Zeze’s larger fable of the human condition, almost Kubrick-like in pointing out the meaninglessness of all this high tragedy.
A final coda, straight out of Wenders, brings back the dead. Kajima watches as his son ferries off to his future at a reformatory. Tomoki sits on the oceanside bulkhead as his wife Tai and their daughter happily pedal off to kindergarten. Sato buses through a winter landscape, Mitsu and Kyoko sit on the back seat. A group of children near the front play "Dark Eyes" on toy instruments. One of them is the young Sato. She follows them out into a spring landscape where the chorus / mime troupe appear. A dance of death and rebirth and a reconciliation with Sato’s departed mother, father and sister ensue. A momentary healing in a world filled with randomness. Of course, Zeze undercuts these images with a final trio of jerky handheld shots with Sato staring accusatorily at the audience and running downhill as the camera pans toward a cityscape.
The cinematography is gorgeous, alternating between breathtaking shots of skies, landscapes and cityscapes and intensely tight close in shots. There are some parts that could have been trimmed to make this a perfect film, but part of the pleasure in "Heaven’s Story" is its imperfection. Zeze has probably never made a perfect film. He’s a filmmaker that thrives on being on edge, on being uncertain. That’s the pleasure of his films. There are moments of pure transcendence in the clutter. "Heaven’s Story" has more that its share of great moments and downright thrilling movie making.
Read more by Nicholas Vroman at his blog