On its publication in the mid-1960s, Katsura Morimura’s autobiographical travelogue The Island Closest to Heaven (天国にいちばん近い島, Tengoku ni Ichiban Chikai Shima) became something of a publishing phenomenon and is credited with creating a romanticised image of the Pacific islands in the post-war Japanese imagination. Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1984 film adaptation in fact prominently features adverts for the UTA New Caledonia tour and acts as something like a tourist information video showcasing the idyllic island scenery and well appointed resort accommodation if also later featuring the decidedly less well appointed establishments on the other side of town where the locals live and and work.
It is however first and foremost a vehicle for Kadokawa idol star Tomoyo Harada who had made her debut in Obayashi’s The Little Girl Who Conquered Time and was now onto her third lead having starred in Curtain Call earlier in the year which Haruki Kadokawa had directed himself. As such, the film is only loosely based on Morimura’s novel, recasting the heroine as a recently bereaved 16-year-old embarking on a coming-of-age adventure while travelling overseas looking for herself and a sense of the safety and stability she experienced before her father’s death.
In the prologue sequence which opens the film, shot with a muted, pink-tinted colour filter, a younger Mari sits on the edge of a bridge with her father holding her from behind. As both she and her father are dressed in yukata, as are others who pass them on the bridge, we can assume that it is summer and possibly around the time of Bon festival which adds an extra degree of poignancy to their conversation in which her father quietly clearly anticipates his own death. He tells her about a distant island far to the south and close enough to Heaven for God to call on where it is always warm and sunny and the people always happy. Mari asks for the name of the place and is told it is called New Caledonia, possibly a name her father picked out of the air without thinking but becomes to her a symbol of the bond that existed between them and place she must visit now that her father is no longer physically present in her life.
What she’s looking for is in a sense a path back to her father or at least a means a coming to terms with his absence. Her mother (Kayo Matsuo) may appear somewhat indifferent, but it’s clear that it’s a kind of pride she feels in her daughter’s first steps into adulthood knowing that she has raised a determined young woman if one with her head in the clouds like her father. Her sentiment is later echoed by an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) who has come to New Caledonia in order to make peace with the death of her husband 39 years previously when his submarine was sunk during the war, stating that all these years later her abiding memory is pride that she fell in love with someone she could be proud of. “Love is the story of your whole life” she tells Mari, who is herself just beginning to understand that life is a process of love and loss as she searches for her island and eventually finds it in the eyes of a local boy who yearns for an island far to the north where it’s always bright and sunny and the people are always happy.
Mari’s interactions on the island are torn between two men, the young Taro (Ryoichi Takayanagi) who is fascinated by the idea of Japan where his grandfather first came from to dig nickel, and a much older man, Yuichi (Toru Minegishi), who seems to be arrested, stuck on the island and unable to move forward with his life because of a youthful broken heart. Mari reminds him of the young woman he loved and lost, trying to recapture the magic with a moment that seems to reference Jules Verne’s The Green Ray, but of course failing to do so. There is something uncomfortable in their relationship given that Mari is only 16 and this man is perhaps already in his 40s, yet her decision to leave the safety of the tour group and venture astray with him to find what she is looking for rather than what the tour guide wants to show her demonstrates her independent spirt and impending adulthood in taking an active control over her life and future.
In this way the island is a liminal space in more ways than one, symbolically connecting the mortal world and the other while allowing Mari to transition into adulthood as symbolised by her return home now no longer wearing her glasses in having opened her eyes to a fuller reality. Nevertheless, the film does follow the line of the book which is very of its time in its presentation of the indigenous community which is bound up with the idea of a smiling island people lazing in the sun of a tropical paradise while possessing profound spiritual knowledge. Mari’s literal coming of age is symbolised by a fever she endures after being stung by a sting ray, coming to during a tribal dance and then collapsing again to awaken as if reborn into adulthood.
After this transition it’s implied that her relationship with Taro will have to end, that this brief summer adventure like so many in Obayashi’s films was just about making memories to carry forward in the further course of life. But then as her seemingly unburdened tour group friend had pointed out, Mari found Taro by chance twice before and so may someday find him again just as Mari’s intervention has earned Yuichi and his first love a second chance no longer so enthral to the illusionary power of the green ray but making choices informed by the realities of love that may still be “romantic” if no longer quite so naive. Shifting into a more contemplative register than other similarly themed Kadokawa idol movies, The Island Closest to Heaven is one of Obayashi’s most straightforward features save for its brief use of colour filters in the opening and closing scenes and the lengthy title sequence which draws inspiration from classic Hollywood melodrama, but engages with some of his key themes in the romantic nostalgia of love and loss as his heroine comes to a new understanding of herself while bidding goodbye to the past.
The Island Closest to Heaven is released on blu-ray on 17th October courtesy of Third Window Films as part of the Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 80s Kadokawa Years box set alongside School in the Crosshairs, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and His Motorbike, Her Island.
Original trailer (English subtitles)
Theme song performed by Tomoyo Harada