Two frustrated youths meet by chance. He steals a car and comes into possession of a gun, prompting them to take a road trip with the authorities in pursuit that will potentially lead to a tragic conclusion. Based on these stock elements, Heaven’s Door firmly occupies typical ‘young lovers on the run’ territory, although the film has some usual behind-the-scenes elements, not to mention compassionate character motivation that raises interest in an otherwise conventional travel narrative. Heaven’s Door is a Japanese remake of the German road movie Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (1997) while the director, Michael Arias, is one of the few Westerners working in the Japanese film industry, alongside Max Mannix (Rain Fall, 2009) and John Williams (Sado Tempest, 2012). Also, the tearaways here are not merely the socially disenfranchised types usually seen in such cross-country problem pictures, but a pair of youths who have been inflicted with terminal illness. Due to the results of his latest physical examination, auto mechanic Masato (Tomoya Nagase) is laid-off from work and goes to the hospital, where he is diagnosed with a brain tumour that leaves him with less than a week to live. After being allocated a bed for his final days, he meets 14-year-old Harumi, who is suffering from congenital heart disease which will take her life in the next month. Masato (Mayuko Fukuda) finds a bottle of tequila under his bed, left by its previous occupant, and they bond over drinks with an intoxicated Harumi stating that she has never been to the ocean. Eager to get away from the death ward, Masato impulsively steals a vehicle and takes his new friend on a road trip to the beach.
It is Masato’s choice of car that both assists and hinders his efforts: the vehicle belongs to the president of a company with underworld connections, which means there is not only a gun in the glove compartment, but also a large amount of money in the boot. The police are also on their trail having jumped to the conclusion that Masato has kidnapped Harumi as part of a ransom scheme. With both sides of the law in pursuit, Arias could turn Heaven’s Story into a chase movie, but instead focuses on the relationship between Masato and Harumi as they come to terms with having limited time to see the world. Arias has a nice feel for locations, with grey skylines, billowing factories and the sterile hospital giving way to the rush of the freeway as the protagonists make a break for a few days of escapism. Tokyo’s ring roads and bustling shopping streets take on a dreamlike quality when seen through Harumi’s curious eyes, with textured accompaniment from Plaid’s electronic soundtrack. When the pair check-in to a luxurious hotel for the night, Arias’ roving camera follows a smiling Harumi as she wanders around the warmly lit suite and gazes out at the illuminated cityscape. It is here that she lists all the things she wants to do with her final month: ‘See the beach, go to an amusement park, eat at McDonald’s, buy stacks of comic books, wear a dress to a French restaurant, go to a nail salon and kiss a handsome boy.’ Masato offers to fulfil the last wish on the list, but a precociously repelled Harumi insists that she wants a ‘prince charming’ rather than a ‘barbarian’.
Arias worked as a visual effects artist and served as a producer on The Animatrix (2003), then made his directorial debut with the dazzling anime Tekkonkinkreet (2006), although the punishing process of bringing his vision of a future metropolis to the screen – candidly covered in the ‘making of’ documentary on the film’s DVD release – perhaps led him to choose less technically challenging material for his first live action feature. Some of his flourishes are not particularly inspired, notably the cluttered soundscapes and visions of the afterlife used to convey Masato’s frequent seizures. However, other scenes demonstrate confidence in terms of transitioning between distinct tones. Flights of fantasy are followed by moments of hard reality, such as an innocent dance in the rain ending abruptly with Masato suffering an attack, prompting Harumi to rush to a drug store and have the chemist reluctantly prepare medicine at gunpoint: ‘If life happened twice, I would listen. But this is the end, so I can’t!’ After some predictably playful detours, which enable Harumi to enjoy some of the experiences on her list, Heaven’s Door arrives at the expected confrontation with the criminals and the police closing in, although any tension is diluted by a sentimental streak as even one of the bad guys questions the point of killing two people who do not have long to live. Arias is similarly inclined, preferring to keep the inevitable at bay so Harumi can have a morning of soft sand and clear blue sky. Sincere yet not as affecting as it aims to be due to succumbing to various clichés, Heaven’s Door is ultimately a fairly lackadaisical road movie, despite the time sensitive reason for its journey.