Heaven’s Bookstore (Tengoku no Honya/Koibi)

Director: Tetesuo Shinohara
Year: 2004
Running Time: 111 minutes

For those who are fans of the 2002 film Yomigaeri: Resurrection, this film might be right up your spiritually metaphysical alley. Like that film, this too is basically a Japanese soap dealing with dead people and their problems and relationships – in fact it is very much like a normal sudsy soap except that the people are no longer technically alive. While Yomigaeri was about dead people coming back to life to be with the ones they loved on earth, Heaven's Bookstore takes place in . . . well heaven where life - or death I guess - is pretty darn good. It looks exactly like life on earth though everything is sparkling clean, it’s always sunny, food tastes great, almost everyone is happy, people have jobs they like (yes you even have to work in heaven!) and everybody is Japanese. Damn I guess I don't get in. Maybe non-Japanese get their own section of heaven, but I would like to think that by the time we get to heaven their wouldn’t be a lot of attention paid to nationality – but you never know!

The premise being that all of us have 100 years of shelf life between earth and heaven - and so if you die at 60 - you spend another forty years in heaven before you are recycled back to earth in rebirth. What a great deal. If this was true we would all be jumping off tall buildings tomorrow because heaven is a lot better than being here – it’s basically all the good things without the bad – though not sure if the Internet was among them. Just think of the neat people you would get to meet. Roberto Clemente for one. Marilyn Monroe in the prime of life and still looking gorgeous. Maybe Nixon would finally admit how much he knew about Watergate. The one drawback might be that you stay the same age as when you died – so a 5-year old would be five for the next 95 years, which could get to be a drag. As the time grows close to the return to earth, people begin to celebrate and have farewell parties. What could be better?

Kenta (Tetsuji Tamayama) is a pianist in the living world when he learns that he has been fired from his job and he goes to a bar and drinks till he passes out. When he comes to he discovers himself in heaven – to be more specific – in a library in heaven. He seems mildly puzzled but not particularly upset and doesn’t even bother to ask how the heck he got there and what was the cause of his demise – which would probably be my second question (right after asking how the Boston Red Sox were doing). He wanders around town for a bit before settling into his job working at the library. One of his duties is doing request readings by patrons and one day Shoko (Yuko Takeuchi) turns up and he reads to her. He recognizes that she is the woman who long ago had inspired him to play the piano after seeing her in concert and he makes a concerted effort to get to know her.  He learns that she has never played the piano since coming to heaven and has been unable to finish a lengthy piano piece that she had begun while alive – caused by a mental block due to issues left unresolved on earth.

The film then switches to some characters on earth – as it follows Shoko’s niece Kanako (also played by Yuko) who is attempting to organize a huge fireworks display. There is only one person though who can create a certain type of firework – what is termed “wabi” – Japanese style – that she wants to conclude the show with – but Takimoto (Terukuki Kagawa) has refused to make any more fireworks since an accident a number of years previously in which someone was hurt. And the woman injured turns out to be Shoko and Takimoto was her lover. Ah, the plot thickens. As issues are worked out in both heaven and earth their connectivity is drawn together in an oddly effective if contrived manner. It may sound quite maudlin and sentimental – and that’s because it is - but the Japanese seemed to have mastered this form of melodrama to an art form. It isn’t smart, but it draws you in and as absurd as it all is perhaps all of us like a bit of hoped for reassurance that the next phase of our lives is only one more step in a long journey. Yuko Takeuchi is very good in playing the two parts – as the two characters are very different from one another in personality and she changes their demeanor and look so much that it wasn’t until the very end that I finally figured out it was the same actress in both roles. She also starred in Yomigaeri and perhaps she is the queen bee of this very unique genre.

My rating for this film: 6.0