A middle-aged couple ponder loss and regret on a surreal odyssey into the afterlife , or something like it at least, in Shinji Imaoka’s cheerfully absurdist dramedy Is This Heaven? (天国か、ここ？, Tenkokuka, Koko?). Reuniting with several actors who starred in Imaoka’s previous film Reiko and the Dolphin, the film addresses several of the same themes in its exploration of grief and the inability of moving on but perhaps paradoxically sees its central couple arrive at a happier destination having begun to repair a marital rift.
How they end up in “Heaven” isn’t exactly clear. Nobuo (Hidetoshi Kawaya), a middle-aged man who likes a drink, dances along a highway with half a can of chuhai in his hand and suddenly finds a flier with the word “Heaven” written on it. Everyone he meets seems to be doing an odd dance, even his wife Mayuko (Aki Takeda) who soon snaps out of her trance to tell him off for drinking in public again. While wandering around wondering where they are and how to get back because stationery stores don’t run themselves, the couple run into an old friend, Ueno, which is nice but also weird because Ueno died a week ago having hanged himself in shame over the failure of his business.
Like everyone else in this strange place, Ueno is irrepressibly cheerful and seems to know nothing of his suicide. “When we die, we go to Earth, right?” he asks perplexed while Nobuo begins to wonder what it might mean if he’s really in Heaven, if he’s alive or dead or something in-between. Gradually we come to understand that there is tension in the marriage, much of it born of Nobuo’s insecurity. He fears that Mayuko only married him out of lonely desperation following the death of her first husband Takeshi (Yohta Kawase) whom she may never have got over, and that absolutely anyone would have done it just happened to be him. He resents Mayuko pointing out they’ll be in trouble if they close the stationery store because he’s never had a proper a job and his drinking problem won’t allow him to get one.
It may be drinking that’s brought him on this strange odyssey. The film is divided into four chapters each bearing the title of a progressively harder drink as things get ever stranger while Nobuo wanders around meeting various other strange people including one who may have appeared in one of Imaoka’s previous films along a with a young woman obsessed with shogi and sex. Nobuo later describes them as people he’ll never meet again, standing this time on the other shore of life and death shouting back at the void in a defiant memorial of all he’s lost. Yet his weird journey to the other side has perhaps helped both he and Mayuko deal with the unresolved past and with it the cracks in their marriage.
In a strange way it may be that “Heaven” really is “here” as the couple rediscover an appreciation for all that they have now in the shadow of past and future loss. Indeed, one of the things that convinces Nobuo that he’s not really “dead” is the fact that he can still get drunk and is at least able to feel something while experiencing the sensations of life in taste and touch that the dead can no longer enjoy. “It’s such a miraculous thing” Mayuko sadly tells the younger woman of meeting and falling in love, reminding her not to waste the gift she’s been given.
Then again, Nobuo’s conception of Heaven is very much that of a middle-aged man with its drinking and hostess clubs even if Mayuko opts for the more wholesome option of a trip to the onsen while the young woman rebels against her unwholesome life by embracing the comparatively respectable game of shogi. The strangely dreamlike, elliptical quality of the other world Nobuo and Mayuko find themselves in has its qualities of whimsy in the weird dancing, the death god wine, random cake, and underwater voice effects but also a deep melancholy and a kind yearning for something, well, more Earthy that the pair may eventually rediscover at the end of their journey.
Is This Heaven? had its World Premiere as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.
Original trailer (no subtitles)