Café Funiculi Funicula aka Before The Coffee Gets Cold (Kohi ga Samenai Uchi Ni)

Japan (2018) Dir. Ayuko Tsukahara

If you could go back in time to a specific point in your life, even with the understanding that it can’t change the future, what date would you choose and what would you want to achieve from this? That is the central theme of this gentle, whimsical outing from Japan that offers a unique if baffling twist on the time travel concept via a unique service you won’t find in your local Starbucks.

Funiculi Funicula, a small family run café in suburban Tokyo, has an unusual feature that has become something of an urban legend but it happens to be true – if a person sits in a particular seat, is made a special cup of coffee and thinks back to a certain pivotal day in their past, they will be transported back in time, but only for the time it takes for the coffee to cold.

Run by Nagare Tokita (Motoki Fukami), this unusual magic can only be performed if the coffee is made by the women of the Tokita family, thus the onus falls on his niece Kazu (Kasumi Arimura) to do the honours. However, patrons must wait until the ghost of a woman currently occupying the seat (Yuriko Ishida) takes a toilet break before they can use it themselves.

Based on the 2015 novel by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, the time travelling procedure in this tale is arguably one of the more esoteric and frankly implausible methods proffered for this phenomenon. It shouldn’t work and like many stories of this nature, it does threaten to tie itself up in knots trying to make it work, yet amazingly, we do find ourselves buying into it.

This might be down to the lack of pretension behind it, the overall comfortable mood, and atmosphere, and absence of sci-fi gobbledegook to explain why this is able to happen. It’s actually a tale about regret and having the chance to say those things that should have been said but weren’t. The caveat of not being able to alter the future might be seen as a handicap but by avoiding the repetition or corruption of events, it makes the results of the future emotionally rich.

Four separate incidents are featured – first, Fumiko (Haru) is upset Goro (Kento Hayashi) is leaving for the US but instead of telling him that she likes him, they argue. Next, Kayo (Hiroko Yakushimaru), a regular at the café is suffering from Alzheimer’s and can’t even recognise her husband Yasunori (Yutaka Matsushige). Another café regular is Yaeko (Yo Yoshida) trying to avoid her younger sister Kumi (Wakana Matsumoto) until she learns Kumi was killed in a car accident.

Kazu is the subject of the final time jump but to discuss her reason in depth is to spoil one of the conceits of the film. Whist Kazu has been spending her life making other people happy she neglects her own happiness, until she strikes up a friendship with photography student Ryosuke (Kentaro Ito) and he encourages Kazu to open up about her past.

Before you ask, no, the actual science behind the time travel isn’t explained, but probably just as well as there is nothing plausible or inventive enough that would suffice anyway. The procedure is one that is adhered to like the five rules – stay in the seat, drink the coffee before it gets cold, you can only meet people who have been in the café, you can’t change the past and wait your turn – and it is this ritualistic bent that adds to the mysticism of the journey.

When the time leap happens, the patron finds themselves thrown into a giant pool of water that immerses the café before being transported into the seat. It is uncertain what the water symbolises as the people are always dry when they arrive (yet in the clothes they are wearing in the present) so maybe this is a Japanese tenet regarding water as a mode of travel or maybe even a reference to the birth process.

Despite claiming the future can’t be changed, I actually is but not in the traditional way of reversing a tragedy or correcting a mistake, providing the story with its unique hook and central message. In essence, the future can only be changed not by adjusting the past but adjusting the present, which is sound advice rarely imparted in time travel stories, though this doesn’t stop this one having a slightly overloaded climax built around subverting the rules.

If the set up wasn’t so cosy and charming, where the celebrated Japanese politeness and respect didn’t ease us into a world of amiable confelicity, I’m sure may viewers would have tuned out quite early on. This is a shame as it this is a case of the sentimentality of the outcomes that makes the film as palatable as it is, whilst playing with our own sense of regret, almost assuredly designed to galvanise us into saying that one thing or making that one gesture before it’s too late.

Ayuko Tsukahara makes her film debut as director having previously worked exclusively on TV, and this comes through in certain aspects, like the framing of some of the shots and the episodic structure of the narrative. It adds a lot to the overall warmth of the film’s aura so this isn’t necessarily a negative.

With a strong cast at her disposal, a mix of reliable veterans and capable youngsters, every character is largely relatable and likeable (Fumiko and Yaeko are the closest to antagonists here). Kasumi Arimura is the centrifugal force of this ensemble, initially seeming one-dimensionally affable only to spread her dramatic wings in the emotional final act.

Café Funiculi Funicula wears its good intentions on its sleeve by being an unabashedly accessible and heartfelt reverie for a lazy Sunday afternoon viewing, remaining on the right side of twee when sharing its earnest sentiments with us. The central premise is a farfetched as any but quirky enough to run with.