Heaven’s Story

August 10, 2011

Heaven’s Story (Japan, 2010)

Former pink director Takahisa Zeze made his name with sex films clocking around 65 minutes. Films such as Amazon Garden: Uniform Lesbians (1992). Now Zeze has directed a near 5 hour drama that won the prestigious critics award at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival. And deservedly so: it’s the most unforgettable, even if not the best, film of 2010.

Zeze is a strange fella. He was one of the “Four Devils of Pink” back in his active pink years in the 1990’s. Having angered the pink audiences with his rebellious pics he eventually went mainstream with miserable yet successful films such as Kokkuri (1997), Dog Star, and Moon Child (2003). Semi-pink-arthouse combo A Gap in the Skin (2005), however, proved Zeze was still capable of directing personal and interesting films, too.

Heaven’s Story is a revenge tale – in some ways a more impressive one than any other film in the genre. Zeze’s bravura is the grand scale that justifies its massive 278 minute running time. It’s a story about revenge, but also carrying on living – and other people’s incapability to do so.

The film begins with a murder. A young man (Shugo Oshinari) kills an innocent child and mother. The father (Tomoharu Hasegawa) swears revenge, but the criminal is captured and sent to prison. Same time elsewhere another family is murdered by another killer, leaving only an eight year old girl (Kana Honda) alive. The killer takes his own life before justice could happen. Sometime later the girl catches the grieving father on TV. Publicly swearing to kill criminal (after released from prison) he becomes a personal idol for the traumatized girl. If he can take revenge, then maybe her mind can also find peace in seeing justice happen to at least someone.

The premise is not that different from an average genre affair. What Zeze does differently is the extent to which he expands the character gallery. We’re introduced to a policeman who earns extra income as part time assassin. We meet a troubled young woman living disco life. We follow a sick old woman trying to help the murderer to atone for his sins. And so on. The main character count reaches a near dozen before the film is over.

A pessimist would call Heaven’s Story a television mini-series edited into a movie. Indeed, what Zeze does here is something that is usually possible only in television shows. The characters run different paths that only meet after several hours, if ever. Yet they are all essential to the film. Heaven’s Story is not episodic but thematic. All its characters live in the same world, and will be affected directly or indirectly by the crime that started the storyline – and the revenge that lies ahead. In the end, they are all just players in something much bigger – a theme.

Focus may seem lost at times, though. Some parts don’t find logical justification immediately. The main storyline is pushed far to the background for hours. Perhaps a little bit trimming wouldn’t have hurt. But patience is rewarded. After some 200 minutes of grounding the stakes are at unbelievable level. Rarely, if ever, has revenge been as gripping as in Heaven’s Story’s last 90 minutes. This is because the audience now knows what will happen – how many people will be affected regardless what the outcome is.

But Zeze has never been an even filmmaker, not even within a single movie. Heaven’s Story, too, is flawed. There’s cheap melodrama to be found in some early parts, and those ever-so-pretentious zooms to the blue sky that make B-grade drama. But there’s also mesmerizing images and sequences, especially is winter landscapes. Zeze shot the film in five parts during 18 months, with all seasons included. But the most magnificent discovery was the deserted mining district of Takahagi with its gorgeous open views.

Heaven’s Story is long, flawed, and, quite frankly, rather magnificent.



  1. Hello, I discovered by chance your site and I find it very interesting. Me too I write a blog on Japanese contemporary movies. Unfortunately it is only in Italian language ma if you like, take a glimpse:

    If you like, we should put our respective blogs in the blog list of each other.

  2. I don’t understand a word, but I’m instantly impressed by the Sono coverage. I’m working on a Finnish language article on Sono (and recently spent a fortune on those out of print R2J’s…), but I don’t think I’ll be able to cover films like Otoko no hanamichi…

    Now, if I was rich and didn’t have school duties I’d reserve flights to Torino immediately…

    Speaking of Italy and Italians, I had Enzo G. Castellari sign my Japanese study book a few days ago. He was attending the Night Visions film festival in Helsinki. They screened 1990: The Bronx Warriors (very popular) and High Crime (even more popular: sold out screening, with standing ovations to Mr. Castellari after the film). The man is 73 years old but in good health – he was spotted dancing with young Finnish girls at the club soon after the 1990 screening, haha.

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