A man drunkenly staggers along a beach-side road: Nobuo, played by Hidetoshi Kawaya. On the street he discovers a piece of paper, upon which someone has written the word ‘heaven’. This leads him to wonder if, by some unexpected change, he is in heaven himself. Over the following hour he drinks his way along the beach, encountering one-by-one the living and dead participants of his own life.
There is something peculiarly old-fashioned about Is This Heaven?, a surreal comedy directed by Shinji Imaoka that made its world premiere at the Osaka Asian Film Festival. Part of it is in the way it is shot. It is full of long takes and beach scenes shot from a distance but zoomed in so as to give everything an odd two-dimensional look. Modern cinema rarely zooms in like this, and neither does it render most scenes’ dialogue via post-production dubbing. One movie that comes to mind with similar beach scenes is Nagisa Oshima’s 1968 comedy Three Resurrected Drunkards; it’s a very different film, but Is This Heaven? does bring to mind that era of slightly experimental filmmaking. It also shares classic Japanese cinema’s obsession with a Cinemascope (or, to be more local, Tohoscope, I suppose) aspect ratio, which is striking for such an experimental work.
That can all make it relatively frustrating to watch. Truth be told, it took a solid half hour for the film to finally click into place and start making a good impression. Before that its slow pace and string of self-similar sequences were more tiresome than intriguing. Its second half does become more engaging and fluid, however, and by its conclusion has become genuinely impressive arthouse fare. The question, then, is how much of the former are you willing to sit through to experience the latter?
It is a talented, immensely watchable ensemble that brings the film to life, including Kawaya, as well as Aki Takeda, Miho Hiraoka, Youta Kawase, and Ryushi Mizukami. They emphasise Imaoka’s peculiar tone and ambivalent atmosphere. It is a funeral? Is it a wake? What is being experienced and what is being imagined? Thanks largely to the performances, it seems likely not even the ghosts know what they truly are. Once its surreal rhythms settle into place, the film becomes enjoyably versatile. It is laugh-out-loud funny in one moment before being genuinely philosophical and insightful in the next. The ongoing references to Nobuo’s binge-drinking tendencies are played for the best comic effect. Each sequence of the film has its own chapter, specifically named after increasingly strong alcohol. At points, when Nobuo fancies a drink, he or an acquaintance conveniently discover cans and bottles lying in the sand.
Despite some excellent work, it seems unlikely that Is This Heaven? will find a significant audience. As with other Japanese independent films, it is too short for international markets while its avant-garde nature will limit the number of viewers it can attract significantly. It seems fated to suffer in obscurity: a few festival screenings, and then just a reference on the Internet. Made, appreciated for an hour, and then – quite unfairly – forgotten. It deserves better. All experimental cinema deserves better.