Heaven's Story: Film Review

Courtesty of Berlinale 2011
A long film about killing, where structure surpasses story.

Japanese director Takahisa Zeze's 278-minute opus on crime and punishment.

BERLIN -- (Forum) The crisscrossed fates of more than 20 characters who live in the same residential estate and who are connected by a series of murders in the 278-minute Heaven's Story form a Japanese Decalogue that meditates on crime and punishment -- a theme that underlines this anthology of murder, avarice, adultery, revenge, atonement, love and parenthood. Pink film master Takahisa Zeze's opus may not reach Krzysztof Kieslowski's level of intellectual or moral rigor, nevertheless, its grandiose structure, vividly captured locations and some stunning visuals compensate for the hazily rendered social milieu and indifference toward characters' motives and inner world.

Clearly a product with no commercial inclinations, the film's length may nonetheless impress alternative cineastes with its trappings of artistic integrity and audacity.

Although killings reach double figures in Heaven, it is less concerned with violence or death than survival, exemplified by central figure Sato's response to tragedy. Only eight when her family is murdered, she (Kana Honda) hero-worships a man named Tomoki (Tomoharu Hasegawa) who declares on TV he'll defy the law to kill Mitsuo (Shugo Oshinari), the juvenile murderer of his wife and infant. As Sato (Moeki Tsuruoka) grows up envisioning how to force their destinies to merge, Tomoki tries to start a new life with a woman with a troubled history of male abuse.

The first two hours affectingly conveys a sense of deep trauma while rising to an apogee of suspense worthy of thrillers when teenaged Sato confronts Tomoki. The complexity of the situation deepens with a shift of focus on Mitsuo, whose coming-of-age parallels Sato's. His attempt to build a home from ruins with Kyoko (singer Hako Yamasaki), an Alzheimer's inflicted doll-maker who wrote to him in prison, sheds new light on connections between wrongdoer and wronged.

Shot over a year to capture the distinct changes of seasons, the glorious beauty of nature contrasts starkly against the monotonous estate in the austere northern climes of Yamagata, becoming a manifestation of the protagonists' shifting moods. A dilapidated, uninhabited residential complex which looks like a bomb shelter haunts as a visual metaphor for our corrupted, post-lapserian paradise. Gloomy images of suburban life are interspersed with ghostly and ritualistic dances by puppet troupe Yumehine and masked dance artist Hyakkidondoro that draw on fables of monsters. Mesmerizing in their stylized symbolism of good and evil, they instill an eerie, spiritual dimension to the human drama.

The last hour becomes quite a slog physically for audiences as the narrative runs out of stamina. Spanning ten years in nine episodes, much care has been taken to develop characters with vastly different predicaments and let their affinities emerge. However, what should jump out strongly as themes, that heaven and hell is a place you carry inside, are frittered down not only by the long running time, but becomes clouded by too many subplots, worst being the unconvincing entanglements of a policeman who moonlights as a paid revenge enforcer.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival, Forum
Sales: Stance Company
Production: Heaven's Project, Tokio
Cast: Moeki Tsuruoka, Tomoharu Hasegawa, Shugo Oshinari, Jun Murakami, Hako Yamasaki, Hiroshi Sato, Akira Emoto
Director: Takahisa Zeze
Screenwriter: Aki Sato
Inspired by the writings of Akira Ikegawa
Planner: Hirotaka Asano
Producers: Daisuke Asakura, Kazunao Sakaguchi
Directors of photography: Natsuhiro Nabeshima, Koichi Saito, Yasushi Hanamura
Production designer: Satoshi Nonogaki, Koji Tanaka, Takeshi Kanabayashi
Costume designer: Asami Okuse, Nami Takagi
Music: Goro Yasukawa
Editor: Toshihiro Imai
No rating, 278 minutes