Starring: Kasumi Arimura, Kentarô Itô, Wakana Matsumoto
Director: Ayuko Tsukahara
Running Time: 118 mins
Café Funiculi Funicula is a Japanese film about a coffee shop where customers can sit in a certain seat and return to the past. However, in keeping with a number of rules, they must come back to the present before their cup of coffee goes cold.
Despite its rather awkward English-language title, Café Funiculi Funicula is often a strikingly beautiful and emotional film, with a clever premise and the odd bit of cute, quirky humour throughout. A distinctly Japanese take on sci-fi drama with a look at the fleeting nature of life, it’s an interesting watch, although it unfrotunately proves to be a real drag on occasions too, with a choppy story and a painfully slow pace making for a frustrating watch at times.
That’s why I wasn’t entirely enamoured by Café Funiculi Funicula, but I’d like to start on the positive side of things, principally with the film’s premise. If you know modern Japanese movies and TV, you’ll know that sci-fi and fantasy often plays a much bigger role in ‘real-world’ dramas than we see in the West.
Whereas the likes of Richard Curtis’ Yesterday and About Time are the only real Western equivalents, a huge number of Japanese films take a sci-fi premise that leads into a more orthodox romantic drama – take Tomorrow I Will Date With Yesterday’s You or If Cats Disappeared From The World as examples of the best of this trend in recent years.
Café Funiculi Funicula, while not quite as strong as either of those films mentioned, is yet another clever edition in this consistently impressive trend of Japanese cinema. On the face of things, it’s a quirky and cutesy premise that sees patrons of a quaint coffee shop taking a trip back in time in the hope of sorting their problems out, but as the film develops, the story cleverly takes you in directions that just didn’t seem possible earlier on.
Things start off in the fashion you’d expect, with a customer taking a trip back in time and attempting to solve a problem with a best friend of hers, but rather than the whole movie being a succession of customers’ stories, it all blends into one central story in brilliantly organic fashion, turning from a quirky, offbeat sci-fi romance early on into an intensely emotional drama come the finish.
Of course, there’s an element of fun in watching the odd character going back in time, and attempting to get what they want done before their cup of coffee goes cold, which is what adds to the movie’s quirky entertainment value, but what’s really striking about it is just how emotional and complex it all becomes towards the latter stages.
And that’s where the film’s main theme comes in – a passionate look at the desperately fleeting nature of life. Whether it’s the romantic struggles of a café customer, the internal emotional turmoil of the young proprietor, or the bittersweet end of a lifelong relationship, the movie packs a real emotional punch at times, with its key moments all playing out in the desperately short time that it takes for a cup of coffee to go cold.
It’s a strange metaphor, but it’s something that tows the same line as a major focus of Japanese life and culture, and as it’s delivered both with passion and with a unique premise, it’s difficult not to be totally taken by this film at its best moments.
However, as beautiful as those most powerful of fleeting moments and ideas are, they are – by very definition – rather brief in the context of the film as a whole. So, although Café Funiculi Funicula packs a punch in some really striking moments, as well as impressing with clever story development right to the finish, the long periods in between aren’t at all the same.
While this is never a boring film (particularly in the latter stages), it’s a very choppy and inconsistent one, starting off in the vein of an anthology movie – telling the stories of a number of clients and the people around them – but trying to establish itself as a single narrative at the same time.
Its clever development and narrative weaving becomes more apparent later on, and that ingenuity deserves praise, but what feel like very abrupt narrative and atmospheric shifts prove to be really frustrating earlier on, worsened by an excessively slow pace that makes it unnecessarily difficult to stay engaged in what is an undeniably engrossing story.
Overall, I liked Café Funiculi Funicula. It’s not a perfect movie, and it struggles to really establish its unique, often ingenious character early on. However, with riveting emotional and thematic depth, great narrative development and an entertaining and offbeat premise, the film still has more than enough to prove an engaging watch, made all the more memorable by powerfully striking moments of fleeting drama from time to time, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.3.