Book: Before the Coffee Gets Cold


Before the Coffee Gets Cold

Japanese Book Title

[Kohi Ga Samenai Uchi Ni]


Toshikazu Kawaguchi







By: Nicholas Driscoll

Years ago in 2018, intrigued by the offbeat premise, I felt compelled to go and take in Cafe Funiculi Funicula (2018), the movie version of Before the Coffee Gets Cold. Given that the film was a Toho production, I wrote up a paragraph-long mini-review for Toho Kingdom, which was overall positive, with minor whingeing. Now, as part of a Japanese novel-reading group, I had the chance to consume the novel in its original Japanese, and then watched the movie again with the group, so I thought that this is a great opportunity to write up a review of the book—and hopefully follow up with a more thorough analysis of the movie, too. While the movie has its share of differences from the source material, both are very similar in style, in strengths, and in weaknesses. The book is a light, sentimental, sometimes tragic, but very breezy fantasy tearjerker that wears its cheesy heart on its sleeve.

The premise: The Funiculi Funicula Café has a crazy secret that visitors who follow a particular ritual can go back in time to meet people in the past. Unfortunately, there are many troublesome rules that limit the usefulness of the ritual. One, you can’t actually change what happens in the past, no matter what you say or do. Two, you can only meet people if they happened to visit the café in the past—it doesn’t work if the targeted individual never actually dropped by the coffee shop. Three, you can’t leave the chair you used when you traveled through time. Four, you have a limited time to visit—the time it takes your magic coffee to cool. Also, if you don’t drink your coffee down to the dregs before it cools, you will die and become a ghost. Those are just some of the rules, and they are very strict, so customers who go through with the whole ritual are somewhat rare. This book follows several individuals who DO travel through time, and the consequences in their individual lives. The stories are largely self-contained, though characters from previous episodes may reappear in later narratives. The individual stories include such situations as a couple that broke up when the boyfriend moved to the USA; an older woman who must take care of her husband who is suffering from Alzheimer’s; siblings dealing with inheritance and death; and a young lady trying to handle a dangerous pregnancy. How each character deals with the situations given them, the ways that the coffee ritual are utilized, and the ultimate (inevitably very emotional) conversations and story revelations are the what makes the book work (or not sometimes).

A lot of the enjoyment from the book comes from the cozy-absurd premise. The book is kind of an outlier in the supernatural romance genre that is so popular in Japan—there are so MANY magical-romance books and films where (for example) the loved one is really a cat, or the cute girl is traveling backwards in time while the boy goes forwards, or one half of the romantic couple seems to be a ghost. As with most of the examples I have seen or read in Japan, Before the Coffee Gets Cold gives a female the magical role. In this case, a young lady named Kazu is the only one who can give the magic coffee—but she doesn’t even have a romance in the book. Instead, the romances (and other emotionally-charged relationships) happen to others around her, and she facilitates the meetings with her magic powers.

Another part of the fun in this tale is the complex rule system described above. Much like with the Death Note or Re/Member manga (which both now have live-action film adaptations), the suite of rules provide entertaining barriers and strictures for the plot to play out. The characters have to work around those rules, and do so in funny or moving ways which heighten stakes and create narratively satisfying situations and solutions. As with Death Note and Re/Member, too, the rules are slowly revealed over the course of the stories… which can sometimes feel overly convenient. When a new rule is revealed just when that rule’s loophole becomes cogent for a particular situation that has arisen, it can feel a little forced or cheap. For most readers, though, I think this problem only crops up once, so it isn’t too bad.

Characters and situations definitely feel contrived for maximum tearjerkage, and the stories get continually weepier as the book progresses. The first two stories are arguably the weakest, with the boyfriend/girlfriend breakup feeling especially annoying (the gf elicited some major eyerolls from me), and even the Alzheimer’s couple has some frustrating cliches, with the crotchety old man coming across as a real jerk of a romantic partner. In my book group, much hash was made over his relational failings as a hyper-stoic, emotionally-stunted macho man—the movie improves this part of the book by switching the roles, making the wife the one suffering from Alzheimer’s, the husband playing the supportive partner. The last two stories in the book, however, were the most emotionally affecting, so the novel leaves the biggest emotional punches for the end—which I won’t spoil

The writing style has some quirks that might annoy readers. This is author Kawaguchi’s first novel, and is based off of a stage play, which explains why almost everything has to pretty much take place at the café. Kawaguchi has several affectations to his writing that can feel a bit too cute—the café staff all have names that derive from kanji related to time somehow (it’s really obvious). The writing can feel a bit pedestrian with repetitive affectations, and the characters sometimes react to things in theatrical ways, which can be a little distracting.

The level of the Japanese is harder than the other Japanese novel I recently reviewed for Toho Kingdom— the Ghost Book novelization. For those in the know about the Japanese reading system, this one has far fewer furigana compared to Ghost Book—you need to know the kanji, as this book was written for an older audience. I read Before the Coffee Gets Cold on Kindle, and if you download the English/Japanese dictionary, you can look up some of the words just by tapping them, but the functionality is disappointingly limited. Many words do not appear in the dictionary—and the dictionary does not do well with conjugated verbs at all. As with many books in Japanese, character names will have furigana the first time they appear (because given names in Japanese are notoriously hard to read—the kanji tend to have multiple readings, so if the reading is not provided in furigana it’s impossible to know the correct reading), but then afterwards the names appear with just the kanji. I had an awful time with the names in the book because I have a hard time remembering names anyway, and this was made worse by the kanji situation. I would see the characters’ names appear in kanji and just wouldn’t remember the readings when I encountered them in subsequent scenes, which made things frustrating, and also made it more difficult for me to keep the characters straight in my mind.

The novel version of Before the Coffee Gets Cold is genuinely touching and sad at times, but keeps a hopeful spirit, and has a lot of clever touches that should tickle cozy fantasy lovers’ sense of fun. While I think Kawaguchi’s lack of experience as a novelist is apparent, the book certainly isn’t bad, and the progression in dramatic stakes from the beginning to the end is satisfying. If you have seen the movie, be prepared—there are quite a few changes, with some character roles swapped, others combined, character costumes changed, the rules of the magic coffee tweaked, and the last story in the movie seems to be from the sequel rather than the first book. Still, reading the book adds a level of understanding and entertainment to the film, and it’s interesting to see the places where the novel is better, and conversely where the movie pushes ahead. I didn’t care so much for this novel and found it hard to keep motivated to the end, but it’s not a bad way to practice Japanese, and the story works well for those who like emotionally wrought warm supernatural melodrama.