A senseless crime involving the murder of a young mother and child sends ripples of impact across eight years — and nearly five hours of screen time — in “Heaven’s Story,” a sprawling but only intermittently successful foray into serious storytelling from pink-film legend Zeze Takahisa. Pic comes from a surprisingly moral place considering Zeze’s background, forgoing titillation for a deeper understanding of such topics as guilt and retribution, but the moments of insight and originality are spaced awfully far apart, sentencing “Story” (outside Japan, at least) to the festival circuit, which serves as purgatory for such defiantly non-commercial features.
Any new Japanese film of such demanding length comes with a certain expectation, somewhat unfairly conjuring the potential of epics like “Love Exposure” or “Eureka,” though Zeze’s low-key melodrama is considerably less divine than either of those two projects. Implying via its title that the dead do not so much depart as change form, continuing to share the same world as the living, “Heaven’s Story” focuses on nearly a dozen characters directly affected by acts of violence, their stories spread across nine different chapters bookended by examples of Japanese masked theater designed to set the tragic tone.
On one side, there are the survivors, young Sato (Tsuruoka Moeki), emotionally adrift in the wake of her parents’ murder, and Tomoki (Hasegawa Tomoharu), whose wife and infant child are killed in the opening chapter. These first two characters become unlikely allies, brought together by a desire for vengeance, but Zeze is also interested in the killers, including Mitsuo (Shugo Oshinari), the minor who attacked Tomoki’s family, and Kaijima (Murakami Jun), a police officer who moonlights as an assassin. This pair is particularly complex: The cop, for example, accepts contract assignments as a way of atoning for having shot a robber some years earlier, using the blood money to support the dead criminal’s widow and daughter.
Working with three different cinematographers over the course of a year and a half (divided into roughly five 10-day stretches of shooting), Zeze is able to vary the seasons and styles of the film’s various sections from relatively classical (but seldom gorgeous) to jarring handheld stretches. The various stories feel relatively disconnected for nearly the first three hours, in which some characters are more immediately compelling than others, lending energy to their respective segments.
Sato earns our sympathy in the opening episode, “Summer Sky and Pee,” but has grown dull and uninteresting by the film’s drawn-out epilogue, which attempts to put her grief in some sort of cosmic context. On the other hand, the Kaijima-centered segment, “Cherry Blossom and a Snowman,” could easily work as its own stand-alone short — in one darkly comic bit, he tracks a mark to a remote mining town, where his attempts to capture and poison the wily target result in an uproariously incompetent chase through the snow.
Taken by itself, the scene doesn’t leave much of an impression, though it comes into focus later when Tomoki confronts his wife’s killer at the same location. (Even more absurd is the final showdown at the foot of the Kurihama flower garden’s Godzilla slide.) But Mitsuo is a changed man when he completes his eight-year prison sentence, thanks in part to unconditional love from an unexpected source, a dollmaker named Kyoko (soulful-eyed folksinger Yamasaki Hako), who agrees to adopt the troubled young man. Kyoko first surfaces just after intermission and serves as a sort of spine around which the other previously disparate elements start to crystallize, with the connections becoming clear during a Christmastime episode set eight years after the initial murders.
Rather like a novel that introduces and then alternates between various characters, “Heaven’s Story” attempts to illuminate the often conflicting emotional states of people whose lives are defined by violent actions. Listless and unfocused at times, then intensely plot-driven during other segments, this mammoth work seems too much for Zeze. Such an undertaking should be conducted almost like a concert. Instead, not only is there no score to give individual scenes the intensity they need, but even the film’s rhythms feel strangely unmarshaled.