A supernatural tale of love beyond the grave, a woman who gives three choices to the dead, and her yearning to be loved.
"Welcome to the Gate of Rage." - Izuko, skyhigh
Between life and the hereafter is the Gate of Rage, a place outside of time and space, where a mysterious woman dressed in a black kimono greets the victims of accidents and foul play.
Izuko is the guardian of the Gate and a guide to the souls who pass through. She explains that they have three choices: to ascend to Heaven to await reincarnation; to deny their death and wander the world as a ghost, or to curse a human, typically their murderer or someone who just happened to annoy the deceased, and be condemned to an eternity of agony in Hell.
Each chapter of Tsutomu Takahashi's manga series and the sequels skyhigh: Karma and skyhigh: New Chapters follow the exploits of a particular soul as they come to terms with their death and make their choice. However, perhaps befitting the dark tone, most of Izuko's charges choose the final option and get their revenge before going to meet their fate with Izuko's trademark "oikinasai," which roughly translates as a formal way of saying "please go then."
For example, the first chapter follows a pregnant woman, Noriko, who suddenly realizes that she is watching her own funeral. The scene shifts, and we meet Izuko, who explains that she has twelve days to decide her next step. But, of course, Noriko cannot simply leave the matter alone, so she sets out to discover her murderer’s identity. She eventually discovers that it was her jealous friend Misato who led to her death, and so Noriko curses her. The chapter ends a year later with Misato in labor, and she dies giving birth to a fully-grown Noriko.
Of course, in even the darkest manga, there is the light of redemption. Izuko, despite being the connection between chapters, normally stands in the sidelines, suggesting that the souls forgive and forget before heading to paradise.
Such a soul is Asami, who discovered the Gate of Rage in a book and plunged from a cliff. She seeks vengeance on three friends, playing a cruel and macabre game, getting them to guess which of them will die. Yet as she rises from a bathtub to drown her victim, Izuko watches and reminds her that even as the oxygen is forced from her victim's lungs, she can stop. Realizing what is at stake here, Asami changes her mind and ascends to Heaven.
Yet the final chapter of the second volume also explains a little more about the role of Izuko. The name of the Guardian of the Gate is actually a title, and there have been many Izukos. Each time that someone, in this case a girl once known as Anna, asks to become the Guardian Izuko, her soul is suspended between the world of the living and the realms of Heaven and Hell. The current Izuko tutors the next Guardian and mentors them as they advise their first wandering soul, which in Anna's case is her dead father, before she goes through the Gate to ascend to Heaven and be reincarnated.
It is with this final story that we also learn a little about our unconventional protagonist. Izuko died in her mother's womb, and so she has no memories of her past lives to guide her. Thus she became the Guardian of the Gate of Rage, but she secretly longs to be reborn and have a family, yet all that she truly wants is to be loved.
The success of the manga, which is still running in Japan, led to TV Asahi optioning a nine-part late night TV series staring Yumiko Shaku as Izuko. Shaku is better known to Americans for her role as Yuki Takemikazuchi, in the remake of the classic live-action movie Shurayukihime (Princess Snowblood), known in the US as The Princess Blade.
The idea for the TV series was originally pitched by acclaimed director Ryuhei Kitamura, who directed VERSUS and Azumi, as well as another of Tsutomu Takahashi's manga, Alive. Kitamura also directed several episodes before deciding to film a movie prequel.
The first season of the TV series is basically a live-action version of the manga and it has several directors. Each story begins with a minute long opening sequence where Latin phrases such as ’memento mori’ (‘remember that you will die') are super imposed over images of Izuko and the wondering souls that she meets.
Each episode in the first season comprises of stories from the first two volumes of the manga. However, they also include cameos from two mortals, a boy called Shokichi Yomoyama and his father Daikichi (whom Shokichi usually refers to as 'boss'). The pair are anxiously awaiting the arrival of a new member of their family, and as is common with kids in such shows, Shokichi is the only one who can see Izuko.
Yet as in the manga, it is through helping the lost soul Anna Katagiri that Izuko learns of her own past, how her mother died during childbirth and how her own soul never got the chance to be born into the world of the living. She became Guardian of the Gate, but unlike in the manga, the God-like voice that she speaks with throughout the final three episodes informs her that it is time for Izuko to relinquish her Guardianship and to make her choice.
When Anna asks to become Izuko, as in the manga, Yumiko Shaku's Izuko journeys to Heaven, where she is reincarnated, but the final moments of the series show that her soul is placed in Shokichi's newborn sister. Guess what he, after three episodes of befriending the confused Guardian of the Gate, names her?
In 2003, the skyhigh movie began its theatrical run in Japanese cinemas. Again staring Yumiko Shaku, this time as a woman named Mina who finds herself at the Gate of Rage after her heart is cut out on her wedding day.
A solemn Izuko, played by Eihi Shinha, more akin to the one met in the manga, informs Mina and other souls, Maya, Kazumi and Sanae, that they all stood as Izuko, the Guardian of the Gate, in one of their previous lives and that is the reason why they were murdered.
Following the memory of her resentment, Mina learns that she was murdered by a woman called Rei, and her heart removed by Tatsuya Kudo. Kudo is the owner of a huge genetics firm who has turned to the black arts in order to bring back his beloved wife, Eri, who lies in a coma. To do this, he needs to steal six hearts at certain places from women who all stood as Guardians of the Gate. Once he has the hearts, he can summon a demon who will break through the Gate of Rage and grant his heart's desire.
Mina's fiancé, a policeman called Kanzaki, is soon drawn into the hunt for her murderer, along with the coroner, reporter Sayuri, and a psychic photographer who can communicate with the wandering Mina.
After Izuko is struck down by Rei's bespelled blade, the mantle of Izuko is passed to Mina and she once again resumes her Guardianship of the Gate before a final showdown with Kudo.
This supernatural love story is much more in depth than the TV series and more violent. There are several sword-fighting sequences between the main characters, and yet it is never clear if Shaku's Izuko is the same Izuko as the one that we met in the original TV series.
A second television season began airing on TV Asahi around the same time as the movie's theatrical run, which again had Yumiko Shaku reprising her role, and it may continue off from where the movie left off. However, it is doubtful that either of the television seasons will ever make it to Western audiences.
Both seasons of skyhigh are available on DVD from stores such as Amazon Japan or CDJapan, but they are not subtitled.
The Japanese skyhigh DVD came in two versions: a single disc edition and the two disc special edition. I mention this only because this is one of the select number of Japanese films which contains English subtitles, and because the second disc of the Special Edition contains a Director's Cut, which is unsubtitled and contains a few extra scenes, giving some added character development.
skyhigh is released in America by MediaBlasters as a single disc DVD, which as far as I know, contains only the theatrical cut, which was recently shown as part of the Brussels International Film Festival.