"Heaven's Story"

in 61st Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Gulnara Abikeyeva

Nowadays cinema has replaced various genres of art to communicate messages. In terms of literature, films based on novels such as Japanese film Heaven’s Story by Zeze Takahisa can be compared to traditional Japanese novel-monogotari, which is composed of a series of short stories. The words of writer Murasaki Sinibu in regard to monogotari reveal the essence of this film: “Monogotari appears only when the author is fed up with seeing and hearing the good and bad of human life — he is no longer able to keep it quiet in his heart.”

Heaven’s Story by Zeze Takahisa is written by his heart. But not as an emotional blast, rather through long days and nights. The script was in the process of being written for nine years and the film lasts for four-and-a-half hours. It seems that watching such a long movie is nearly impossible, however, the longer one watches it, the more it swallows you.  When the film was over, the audience did not move. Everyone was reading the subtitles to the song that was at the end of the film.

Like monogotari, the film is composed of a number of short stories which are woven into one novel of ancient Japanese legend. In this case, it is the story of a devil and a young girl that makes this film an epic story. The audience is thrust into the story of Gods and the inception of creation up until the present day. Besides this theatrical play, the rest of the threads take place nowadays.

I liked the story about the master of dolls — a middle-aged woman who has Alzheimer’s disease who is warned by a doctor that she needs help taking care of herself. She laughs at his words. Soon after that, she cannot recall where her home is. Since she is lonely, she has no kids, no husband, no relatives. She decides to adopt a child.  The heroine adopts a juvenile, who was put in prison for committing a double murder. He killed a young woman and her son. When he gets out of prison, he starts living with this woman. Her disease progresses, and she is confined to a wheel chair. She sometimes recognises the people around her, and sometimes she does not. At one point, when she recognises people around her, he accuses her of adopting him for her own purpose. While she answers: “No, you can always put me into a clinic, while I adopted you so that someone on this planet would remember me.”

The rest of the short stories are also touching, though they are not as powerful as the one I have mentioned. This story and all others in one way or another are connected with the topic of death or murder. Each time a new story starts, it seems that this is a story from a documentary crime newsreel. As time goes by, one is able to see the connection between all the heroes of the film, and they are all tied into one story.

Time in the film is shown in an odd way. If in the first story, the girl with the name Sato is eight years old and she is lost after the deaths of her family members, then at the end of the film she is 18. So, in 4 hours and 38 minutes, the viewer is taken through ten years of life. Not only does she grow up, the other heroes of the film also become adults.

The film by Zeze Takahisa can exist as a series of separate short films — the story of a policeman, who turns out to be an assassin; the story of Sato, who is dreaming of avenging the deaths of her parents and sister; the story of a middle-aged woman, who is a master of dolls; the story of the juvenile murderer; the story of a husband, who has lost his wife and child, and so on. However, as such the tension would not be as strong and the sense of our actions in life being connected to each other would have been lost.

Each story is beautiful on its own and it is tightly woven with the elements of traditional Japanese culture — be it cherry blossom or making dolls. In an interview, the author said: “I wanted to show the four seasons: heat and cold, the pleasantness of spring, the rigour of fall. These details have a great influence on the actors, and the images are different, too, when you shoot them during a particular season.” Of course he was able to make such a film because he had a small budget. “I shot the film over a period of one and a half years. I divided the shooting schedule into five periods to incorporate the changing seasons. Each shooting period was approximately ten days, fifty days altogether. I put together a rough cut each time we finished a period and determined what was missing and/or what was to be added. The process resembled how one would shoot documentary, and it helped the film to have a distinctive quality.” (Forum catalogue, p. 80-81).

The images and elements of Japanese culture are only one aspect of the success. The most important in it is the human passion and sorrow that are either overcome or lead to the death of the main character. Just as it is in life. And everything we do, we are observed by gods. The last episode of the film is about this, when Sato sees figures in the mountains dressed in theatrical costume. But they are not abstract gods, they are the souls of deceased relatives: Sato comes closer to them, as if asking them to take off their masks. When they take them off, she sees her mother, father and her sister. They perform their ritual dance and depart into heaven.

The film of Zeze Takahisa lasts for four and a half hours, and that is a life of ten years with all the characters of the film. Four and a half hours of his soul on the emotional and aesthetic level. And the answers to the questions everyone finds his own – about life and death.

It is not surprising that both jury committees — FIPRESCI and NETPAC that worked at the Berlinale film festival this year, gave their prizes to Heaven’s Story.