Ersatz heaven

Guru of the afterlife

By William Wetherall

A review of Tetsuro Tamba's feature film
Daireikai (Great Spirit World)

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 144(18), 4 May 1989, pages 61-62

Eschatology and pop art have married in Japan, and the honeymoon is heaven for 66-year-old Japanese actor turned afterlife guru Tetsuro Tamba. But judging from his latest creation, Daireikai (Great Spirit World), a full-length film depicting what happens to the spirits of people who die in Japan, Tamba has never read Letters from the Earth by that American master of subversive humour, Mark Twain.

Heaven is boring, Satan says in letters ghost-written by Twain, because there is no sex, and everyone must sing, play the harp, and mix together in social equality and racial harmony. But worse, "there are no exercises for the intellect, nothing for it to live upon."

Satan's mind would quickly atrophy in Tamba's dull spirit world. According to one of Tamba's 42 books on the subject, heaven is about 1,000 km directly above the Earth and rotates with it. "When Japanese die, they naturally go to a Japanesque place," Tamba assures his ethnically conscious followers. "But," he adds as though to lure the internationally spirited, "because there is no concept of time or space throughout the spirit world, anyone who wants to go [from the Japanese village] to the American village can be there in an instant."

Tamba promises nothing less than everlasting youth and beauty for the good people on Earth. Visions of his heavens and hells vary with the artist, but most illustrated books show youthful, even erotic spirits rising from the death beds of the wrinkled elderly, usually women, the middle-aged variety of which constituted most of the audience in the theatre showing his film.

The film is a preview tour through the kinds of spirit worlds that await us all. A bus full of good, ordinary, and bad Japanese collides with a car in which an American woman is riding with a Japanese man and his dog. The bus careens into a ravine and many passengers are killed. The woman is killed, the man is thrown into the river, and the dog drowns when he jumps into the rapids to be with the floating body of his master and both plunge over a high waterfall.

The spirits of all the dead levitate to the first part of Tamba's spirit world, a kind of purgatory where the dead meet their ancestors and the spirits of others they had known in the human world. It is here that one's past catches up and decides one's future. The good go to heaven, the bad go to hell, and the ordinary have to run a few obstacle courses before their fate is sealed.

People who were blind or lame in this world can see or walk in the next. The American woman becomes miraculously fluent in Japanese after her transmigration. The Japanese man finds the American woman, who seems to have gone to Japanese heaven because she had admired Japanese paper umbrellas.

While straying into what narrator Tamba calls "the forest of lingering sexual desire," the man and woman are attacked by a lustful mob, and the woman is abducted. The man, played by Tamba's son, continues to wander through the different spirit worlds until he finds the woman living in an idyllic Japanese village where she makes paper umbrellas, sings folk songs, and believes that her remote ancestors were Japanese.

One day the American woman and other village maidens go into the mountains, open their umbrellas, leap into a canyon, and glide back to the human world. The Japanese man tries to emulate the woman but falls to hell, not for having done wrong, but because he is the movie's tour guide.

Hell is full of the living dead who broke moral laws in the human world. There is a special forest for the spirits of people who committed suicide, which Tamba considers one of the greatest of sins. He has borrowed this disdain for suicide straight from orthodox Buddhism, which teaches that a person should brave life to its natural end, and that escape merely worsens one's karma.

Hell is not a divine punishment, but something that one invites upon oneself, Tamba teaches rather than preaches, for he does not wish to call his moral system a religion. He simply believes that being kind and doing good means happiness in the human world.

Twain's Satan would appreciate Tamba's heaven to the extent that it allows sexual enjoyment for married couples who want it. Sex, like food and drink, is not essential in paradise, though, while in hell all the appetites continue to cause perpetual rivalry between people as well as misery.

Unlike Tamba's sexually graphic books, the family-rated film limits heavenly love to holding hands and hugging. His most recent books, though, are for sale in theatre lobbies, along with five video tapes and five audio cassettes of his popular lectures.

The entrepreneur has promised the construction of Reikai rando (Spirit world land), a Disneyland-style amusement park where the paying faithful and curious can see holograms of themselves floating above their own bodies, and then board a cable car that begins in purgatory, swings through hell and heaven, and ends back to earth at Tamba's souvenir stands.

Tamba, who polished his English as an interpreter for Gen. MacArthur's Occupation forces in Japan after World War II, has appeared in non-Japanese action films like The Seventh Dawn and You Only Live Twice. He shows off his English at the beginning of Great Spirit World, in a scene in which he plays himself joking with foreign experts on the afterlife.

Tamba has found a profitable way to remind his compatriots, as Santa Claus does children, that they had better be good and better not cry. Despite Tamba's easy smile, the ruggedly handsome movie and TV star seems to be dead serious about life. If God ever banishes him from heaven, it will not be for good satire, but for bad parody.