When most people think of fantasy stories, epic clashes between magical creatures and complex sorcery systems probably shimmer to the surface of the mind. Throw Japan into the mix, and pretty boys with enormous swords might be tacked onto the formula—but how about a coffee shop? And a focus on relationships and bittersweet life moments? In the movie Café Funiculi Funicula, directed by Ayuko Tsukahara and based on the play/novel Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, we get a modern-day cozy fantasy more along the lines of a weepy Legends & Lattes book rather than the grand scale and battles of Lord of the Rings. With its warm, brown tones and twinkling emotional melodies, this is very much a gooshy film, but the tear-jerking can work occasionally, and the actors are game enough that—if you can stomach the melodrama—the movie can function to force out a good sniffle or two.

The story follows a series of magical encounters in the eponymous Café Funiculi Funicula (presumably a reference to the Neapolitan song Funiculi, Funicula, about a funicular rail up Mt. Vesuvius). The hook is that one of the staff members of the cafe, a stoic girl named Kazu (Kasumi Arimura, Jossy’s [2014]), has a magical ability to help people travel back through time by serving up her magic coffee. However, there are just scads of rules tied to the use of the mystical java… things like time travelers cannot leave the café while zapping through time, they are incapable of actually changing past events, and they have only until their coffee cools to complete their time travel mission. If they don’t chug the dregs before they get unpalatably cool, they risk death—or at least being turned into a ghost. The movie deals with four mini-stories over the course of the film, each generally becoming by stages more and more emotionally charged. The stories deal with things like unconfessed romantic feelings, losing memories with age and disease, loss of a loved one, and worries around parenting and the future. The stakes are not extremely high, but the emotions are, and the stories aim to end with calculated gut-punches for maximum tears.

Movie Review: Café Funiculi Funicula

A big part of the fun from a movie like this comes from the way that the story uses the magical rules, and Café Funiculi Funicula ably operates within those strictures, reveling in the unusual outcomes from the situations for comic and dramatic effect. Compared to the book, in some ways, the magic is less dramatic, however. A “ghost” usually sits in the one chair that can be used for time travel, for example, and if customers disturb this ghost, she stuns them in the book. In the movie, she just glares menacingly. On the other hand, in the book, when characters drink the last gulp of their magic coffee on their time travel trips, they pretty much immediately travel back to their real timeframe. In the movie, after they take their last sip, most characters only then deliver their most important lines to the loved one they are visiting in the past, and they have these excruciatingly long and emotional exchanges while the magic very slowly takes effect so they can weep it up for a while (and the audience can do so, too, if they feel so inclined). It feels contrived and really sappy when it happens.

The dramatic weight of each story varies considerably. The first story, where a really annoying lady wants to travel back in time to confess her love to some guy before he leaves for the USA, falls rather flat in both the book and film (though in the book, they were already in a relationship, and she wants to let him know how she really feels). Another story, dealing with Alzheimer’s, actually works far better in the movie, with Yutaka Matsushige (The Princess Blade [2001]) giving an agonizingly emotional performance as a fellow whose wife is losing her mind (in the book, the genders are reversed, and their relationship wasn’t nearly as sweet). The next story, of dueling sisters and dreams, delivers its tragic sting with precision, too—though Yo Yoshida (Kamen Rider: Black Sun) is a bit harsh and unsympathetic as the older sister (which is probably the point).

Movie Review: Café Funiculi Funicula

Things wrap up with magic girl Kazu coming to the fore in a big way. Actress Arimura portrays Kazu as a calm, nearly emotionless waitress for most of the film. She glides around the café, delivering her fantasy brew with poise and indifference, as if sending folks to their potential doom every day doesn’t bother her at all. When she has to face her emotions and a stressful decision, and the audience finds out some big revelations, Arimura’s performance, too, shifts and we get to see her tear up. I think Arimura does what she can with the material, but given how callous she has been up to the point of her own drama, and especially in the face of the narrative revelations, her performance can feel false.(1)

The music bolstering all this drama has a sense of muted wonder ruined a bit because it’s so unoriginal. Both times I watched the film, I caught one particular melody that felt was yoinked straight from Spirited Away (2001), and the only other standout tune for me was this “la la la la” ethereal chant which can come across as mildly irritating. The soundtrack feels undercooked and put together from recycled parts, which doesn’t serve the film very well.

I am a bit of a sucker for supernatural romance films like Café Funiculi Funicula, and I did enjoy this one with both viewings—but the film has some significant flaws. The performances range from charming to inconsistent to downright annoying, and the production values feel like a slightly upscale Hallmark Hall of Fame special. The plot is genuinely touching at times, but especially after reading the book, it feels so blatantly contrived to tweak out tears, and I am not sure the characters are equal to the emotional heft the movie wants to achieve. I do like the film as a pleasant cozy sandwich seasoned with bittersweet sauce, and I like that it avoids some of the creepy bits from time-travel romances like About Time or The Time Traveler’s Wife, but this isn’t a top-notch brew, and it’s probably best enjoyed by those who like their coffee a bit cheap and with too much sugar and cream.

2 and a Half Stars

(1)   SPOILERS. We find out in the story that the ghost that usually sits in the the chair where customers can time travel is Kazu’s mother, and we learn a bit of how she ended up there. But the thing is, up until this point, we have been shown Kazu operating in the café around her DEAD MOTHER, fully visible to her, and Kazu doesn’t seem to care or give her mother any special treatment. The staff of the cafe even manipulate the mother ghost with lots of drinks to get her to go to the bathroom so that a customer can sit down and time travel more quickly. Yet at the end, we are supposed to believe that Kazu really loves and misses her mother. It doesn’t quite work, though a sympathetic viewer might interpret Kazu’s coldness as a coping mechanism. Note that Kazu’s story at the end of the film replaces a different tale from the book, and apparently is taken from (or perhaps fused with) a story from the sequel novel.