Tengoku no Honya – koibi

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Tetsuo Shinohara
Running time: 111 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens June 5
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Ever since “Ghost” — that 1990 Jerry Zucker weeper better known now as the sexiest ceramics-instructional film ever — Japanese filmmakers have returned repeatedly to the theme of Love Beyond the Grave, while trying ever harder to come up with new twists.

The latest to mine this vein (or rather, mile-wide pit) is Tetsuo Shinohara (“Shinkokyu no Hitsuyo”), with “Tengoku no Honya — Koibi (Heaven’s Bookstore — The Light of Love).” Based on a best-selling novel by Hisaatsu Matsu and Wataru Tanaka, the film presents a cosmology that is part Buddhism, part schoolgirl wish fulfillment and part theme park, while striving more for sighs of awe and delight than Zuckerian tears. Also, instead of hot clinches, it settles for soulful speeches and noodling on the keyboard (with tunes supplied by pop power couple Masataka and Yumi Matsutoya).

Shinohara doesn’t condescend to this material. If anything, he overelevates it, striving to make turbulent drama out of clever reworkings of formula. But he also knows what his audience wants — and mostly delivers.

The keyboard-noodler referred to above is Kenta (Tetsuji Tamayama), a classical pianist who suddenly finds himself out of a job — deservedly so, since he plays with all the passion of a music box. Drowning his troubles at a bar, he is noticed by an elderly gent in an Aloha shirt. Kenta passes out and wakes up in a strange room. Downstairs, he finds the gent, Yamaki (Yoshio Harada), reading a book to an attentive audience in what looks to be a Borders-bookstore-cum-Egyptian-temple. He is, Yamaki informs him, in a bookshop in heaven and has a new job, as a temp assistant.

Kenta is not dead, but has been called to learn certain life lessons from his colleagues and customers. One of the former is Shoko (Yuko Takeuchi), who has the face of an angel, but is in a personal purgatory. One of the latter is the perky Yui (Karina), who has a family tragedy in her past — and nearly took her own life in response to it. Her inner darkness is, if anything, deeper than Shoko’s.

Back to the real world, where Natsuko (Takeuchi, in a double role) is trying on her aunt Shoko’s yukata. Twelve years earlier, Shoko, a gifted pianist, died young — and the town stopped holding its annual summer fireworks display. The highlight, a town elder tells Natsuko, was a special “love fireworks” (koi suru hanabi) that, legend had it, united the couples that witnessed it.

Inspired, Natsuko persuades her pals to revive the display and seek out the reclusive Takimoto (Teruyuki Kagawa) — the maker of the “love fireworks.” Takimoto, however, refuses their order — his last display ended in disaster and he doesn’t want to risk another.

Switch back to heaven where Kenta visits Shoko’s cottage in the countryside. There, he finds a grand piano and recalls that he heard Shoko play as a boy — and was inspired to become a pianist himself.

The plot concerns itself less with romance in heaven or earth, and more with the struggles of its principals to get their grooves back. If you wonder whether they will or not, you obviously missed Japanese Melodrama 101 and need a refresher.

The film’s “heaven” is an idealized version of Disneyland’s Main Street, where everyone is nice, no one needs money and the only vehicles on the roads are quaint three-wheeled trucks — symbols of a simpler, more innocent time. There are no foreigners (they have their own heavens), no gods, devils or other other-worldly beings (even Hamaki, it turns out, is no angel). It’s something of a crock, this heaven, but is a pleasant place nonetheless, like a resort community with a super security fence.

There is something jarring, though, about Takeuchi’s turns as Shoko and Natsuko. An in-demand TV actress who got her big film break last year in the hit drama “Yomigaeri,” Takeuchi tries hard to differentiate her characters, making Natsuko bouncier, Shoko gloomier, but they are less two distinct personalities than Takeuchi in two different moods.

Also odd is the lack of romance in what is supposed to be a romantic drama. Kenta and Shoko are the two most obvious candidates for coupledom, but Shoko persists in treating Kenta like a younger brother, while Kenta is more comfortable with the role of student and disciple. No sparks, I’m afraid. In this heaven, the residents are more concerned with matters spiritual than carnal. No wonder the still-fleshy Kenta takes the first truck out. A great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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