The early 2000s turned out to be a prosperous time for me when it came to my absorption of Asian films and niche DVD releases. Filmmaker Ryuhei Kitamura landed on my radar as one of several auteurs leading the charge, sending audiences off with early zombie gangster sci-fi and jidaigeki hits like Versus, Alive, Aragami and Azumi, and ultimately getting to prove to fans that he was readily capable of delivering more solemn and pensive characters and stories on screen.
Kitamura’s work shepherding Tsutomu Takahashi’s “Sky High” manga for television and the big screen became exemplary of this, and I’ve always held onto the 2003 adaptation as a favorite that Kitamura might one day return to. That this is what precisely happened as of late last year was something I didn’t expect, and for reasons obvious to those in the know as I wasn’t online as much as I wanted to be; Lo and behold, I nearly lost my father last summer, nearly a year after my family and I lost my sister – situations that would leave just about anybody pondering the abrupt nature and shock of the kind of impact tragedy and suffering has. You never know what’s going to happen on a day to day basis when it comes to your life, and the living, and so leave it to the arts to paint vivid pictures to cradle our need for understanding of life and death, and concepts pertaining to what lies in between.
Takahashi’s aforementioned early 2000s manga took this to task, as did the very filmmaker who adapted his work a few years later. Nearly twenty years later, it is here that we find ourselves in the auspicious company of both creatives pairing up to deliver an adaptation of Takahashi’s 2013 spin-off, “The Three Sisters Of Tenmasou Inn.” Ureha Shimada adapts the screenplay inspired by the manga advancing concepts rooted in Sky High, a story in which spirits of the dead arrive in the afterlife and placed before a gate monitored by a pre-destined Guardian, guiding the souls of those who choose to either accept their death and enter Heaven, roam the Earth as a ghost, or commit to vengeance and face eternal Hell. In Kitamura’s take on the spin-off, Shimada’s script takes the route of the spin-off thusly, centering on a gathering of souls residing in an afterlife version of Mitsuse, a seaside village in the Saga Prefecture.
It is here where we are introduced to sisters Nozomi (Yuko Oshima) and Kanae (Mugi Kadowaki), and their mother, Keiko (Shinobu Terajima), the matriarch of Tenmasou Inn, a hotspring and resort where souls are escorted when their bodies in the living world are rendered comatose or dead. Escorted by the mysterious Izuko (Kou Shibasaki) and a masked limo driver, the inn’s newest arrival, Tamae (Non) comes to learn not only of the realm she is in, but also the circumstances of her arrival, and she also discovers that Nozomi and Kanae are her long lost sisters. The moment is far from festive and more awkward than anything, particularly for Keiko, who is unsettled and embittered due to the past deeds of Tamae’s father, Kiyoshi (Masatoshi Nagase), and is inherently unaccepting of Tamae as any kind of relative as a result.
As the movie unfolds, we follow Tamae as she commits to service at the Inn as a means of being productive, something which briefly compels Nozomi to put her own sincerity in perspective when confronted with questions about her work ethic. During her nascent trials between the kitchen, resident service and training to be a dolphin show host with Kanae, Tamae proves herself to be tenacious and devoted at her work, as well as more affable with some of the residents of the Inn, including Reiko (Yoshiko Mita), who is currently in a coma herself following an ailmemt and a bout with blindness. The same goes for her fledgeling friendship with twenty year old Yuuna (Kasumi Yamaya), who also now finds her soul on the same precipice as some of her neighbors after years of bullying over accusations of plagiarism with her artwork led her to an attempt on her own life.
The movie also explores several other aspects of some of the characters and relationships therein, including Kanae’s courtship with a fisherman named Kazuma (Kengo Kora), and his father, Genichi (Toshiro Yanagiba), who still mourns his death to this day, as well as Genichi’s friendship with Kaito (Riku Hagiwara), the surviving son of the late head of the aquarium where he used to work with Kanae. Par for the course with the lore is the film’s expansion to all of the souls existing in Mitsuse’s afterlife plane, and the incumbent fact that the realm is going to cease to exist, which means eventually all of the souls of the dead are going to have to ascend to Heaven. It’s a bittersweet reminder to Tamae who doesn’t want to lose her newfound family after a life of hardship that brought her to her current spiritual impasse. Regardless, there’s a more propitious nature to Tamae’s existence that she is bound to discover – a cause that could grant her not only a chance to find the peace and joy in living, but also a renewed sense of purpose.
At one time or another, Kitamura’s attempts at cerebral drama would bode as more lagging to the point where I’d fall asleep. The 2003 feature adaptation of Sky High, and even his shortfilm that year, The Messenger, suffered a little from this, though the lore is what kept me watching, on top of the fact that after seeing Yumiko Shaku take up a prop sword for the lead role in Shinsuke Sato’s The Princess Blade, I would have happily watched her kick some ass in anything. Kitamura’s Sky High also brought some reverence and introspection apart from its genre fan-service, something Kitamura seems to have improved on this time around to a great deal with The Three Sisters Of Tenmasou Inn. The characters are substantiated by the performances of the cast which makes them interesting to follow, and the transitions and pacing don’t drag as much as they used to.
Gone for the most part is the studio set with much of the film shot entirely in a village where you would have been none the wiser unless it was iterated that the surrounding settings was all just a waystation for souls in-between realms. The movie also has a way of discerning the two, doing smaller gesture like featuring two characters in one shot before seguing to one character with different set pieces to indicate that only one character is alive. The movie also weaves in a good share of flashbacks illustrated as snapshots of memories in sequences where certain characters are offered a lantern to look at their lives before deciding whether or not they want to move on or simply pass away. Kitamura implements this aspect in a few different ways, one in which a character simply sets sail on a boat into the vast ocean, straying directly into the beaming sunrise as it glistens on the ocean surface. Other shots are done with more VFX driven methods which come off as simplistic and maybe dated depending on your preferences with visual cinematic ornaments.
Non compels viewers with an uplifting portrayal of Tamae, a character whose unabashed effervescence adequately balances out her quiet stoicism. Her enthusiasm to serve and help others speaks to her neglected past trauma – something to keep in mind as the film reveals the ensuing paradigm and inevitable bond between her and Yuuna. Their parting of ways midway into the film is a perfect setup for what occurs later on long after most of the characters in the movie make their exit.
The big pay off with The Three Sisters Of Tenmasou Inn, of course, comes when Shibasaki leans into her final shot of the film as Izuko after several background appearances throughout the film. As (un)expected, she does the thing toward the end of the movie, and if you know “Sky High,” then you know the thing, and we very much like the thing; It never even occured to me even a few weeks ago when I mused about Sky High on Instagram that this would be a factor, but that’s what happens when you go into a movie blind with no certain expectations or binding conditions.
As someone who spent way too much money on DVDs in a past life, The Three Sisters Of Tenmasou Inn felt like a warm, two-and-a-half hour long hug thanking me for my patience. I have an appreciation here for Kitamura’s interest in Takahashi’s source material, especially in imparting the kind of story that begs you to consider the far-reaching implications of taking all that we do for granted – things like love, forgiveness, and finding hope when it feels like all that’s left is despair; A story that compels you to not sell yourself short, especially when you’ve barely lived your life to its fullest, notions of Heaven and Hell notwithstanding regardless of your beliefs.
I honestly don’t know where Kitamura is going from here though. He’s spent a good deal of the past decade or so tapping into the U.S. market with a raft of genre thrillers in a clear career evolution since his heyday at Napalm Films. I miss those days, but it feels damn good seeing Kitamura direct a Japanese cast again, tapping into a manga to exude a quality, touching and poignant family drama through a fantasy lens with a film like The Three Sisters Of Tenmasou Inn.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.