Self-realization is a foreign land to be explored in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s moving new film
Most may know Kiyoshi Kurosawa as one of the early pioneers of J-Horror in the 2000s, but as accessibility to international cinema has broadened, so has exposure to much of the Japanese auteur’s more diverse entries in his filmography. In fact, much of Kurosawa’s output has found him veering away from external frights in favor of more internalized ones–the anxieties and neuroses that define our daily lives. Tokyo Sonata, in particular, features a nuclear family falling apart at the seams as they try to adhere to the societal roles expected of them; Creepy, on the other hand, is a suspense thriller of neighborly goodwill gone absurdly awry. Even his recent ghost stories find themselves exploring interesting worlds beyond their horrific origins. Journey to the Shore sees Kurosawa reframe a ghost story as one of romantic longing as a woman finds herself guided once more by her deceased husband; his first international feature, the French Daguerrotype, is a horror-romance driven by obsession more in the vein of Hitchcock’s Vertigo than Kurosawa’s own Pulse or Seance. While all these films use the same expansive tableaux and crumbling naturalistic settings once used to hide shambling, lonely spirits, these ruins now feature lost souls still trapped in the land of the living–most, if not all, searching the awkward, nicety-driven worlds they live in for a sense of greater purpose or fulfillment.
His latest to hit American shores is To the Ends of the Earth–a film that explores how the anxiety of being a stranger in a strange land disarms the ability to construct a persona out of the language we carefully use. For the film’s reporter lead, a journey across Uzbekistan forces her to confront the winding career path that led her to a desert a world apart from the safety of home–as well as the dreams she repressed along the way.
The film follows chipper Japanese TV personality Yuko as she meanders the clamorous city streets of Tashkent, Uzbekistan and the mountainous desert beyond in search of material for her travel program. Far from the world she knows back in Tokyo, the vibrant world of Uzbekistan becomes a sounding board for each of Yuko’s greatest hopes and fears–with each stop on Yuko’s adventure revealing a new shade of her secretive inner life.
To the Ends of the Earth is a beautiful, methodically-constructed journey into the origins of one woman’s passions and insecurities. Its rich, vibrant atmosphere — with shades of everything from Abbas Kiarostami to Robert Bresson to Jacques Demy — and a contemplative, emotional performance by Atsuko Maeda makes To the Ends of the Earth one of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s most rewarding recent films.
Comprised of small vignette-like set pieces in and around Tashkent, much of To the Ends of the Earth sees Yuko often separated from the perceived safety of her film crew — cast adrift in an unfamiliar and untranslated streets of Uzbekistan. There’s rarely a frame when Yuko is alone in a crowd where at least one person isn’t casting a bemused or disapproving stare her way — or where Yuko tries to escape the frame of a camera whose eye is always roving yet is always locked in place. Here, Kurosawa’s signature sense of paranoia and dread pervades a world where any semblance of the supernatural or fantasy has given way to staunch commercialism and harsh lack of mystery. Familiar objects in a supermarket are decked out in unfamiliar Cyrillic and Uzbek; languages outside of Japanese or English go untranslated, leaving intentions by passersby uncomfortably elusive. Kurosawa evens out the film by targeting the internal biases at the heart of Yuko’s anxieties — addressing a subtle xenophobia without making that a total lynchpin of the film. In one climactic scene, Yuko finds herself apprehended by the police after a slightly comical chase sequence — all of which arises from their inability to understand each other. “You ran,” the Police Chief later translates, “so we had to chase you.”
Rather, much of To the Ends of the Earth explores this widening gap between Yuko and the unfamiliar world she navigates. She struggles to keep up with her boyfriend back home, who’s pursued his dangerous passion as a coastal firefighter — not just in differing time zones, but as we later infer as her own inability to equally courageously pursue her own professional goals. Yuko also diligently throws herself into precarious and ill-staged sequences for the good of her program. A gut-wrenching scene has her ride a flipping ferris wheel multiple times in a row so all angles can be shot, despite becoming increasingly nauseous. In another, she happily downs a dish with uncooked rice, remarking it’s “exquisitely crunchy” for the camera. For Yuko, such haphazard work clearly isn’t fulfilling, even if it might make for “good television.” Regardless, she soldiers on, even as she struggles to hide her disgust or nausea behind her cheery TV personality. But that’s the crux of To the Ends of the Earth — what’s the point of such self-inflicted suffering or inadequacy, if we have only so much time on this planet?
Kurosawa meditates on potential answers in fleeting moments of human connection reminiscent of Robert Bresson and Abbas Kiarostami–and much of these breathtaking sequences in To the Ends of the Earth are its most surreal and dreamlike. Around a corner could be a bustling bazaar or a Silent Hill-esque darkened alley; and in a labyrinthine, ornately-decorated theater, one can find themselves both audience member and performer. While much of the film is grounded in Yuko’s experience, Kurosawa’s quick to let us in that this is the world as she perceives it — with everything around Yuko framed as menacing, melancholy, or full of mirth depending on her state of mind. Its in these moments where Yuko’s repressed passions — notably one as a musical performer — eke out a journey to potential fruition. The film’s climax finally sees this barrier potentially come crashing down — using Maeda’s experience as a musician and stage idol as an unexpected asset in one of the most cathartic endings of the year. It’s a conclusion that’s hopeful in Kurosawa’s own way, much like the endings of Tokyo Sonata or even Pulse — that the carefully-constructed barrier between the real and the fantastic is a source of misery and pain that must be eradicated at all costs. While the end result may vary somewhere between the horrific and exhilarating — anything is better than the complacency of the known and mundane.
To the Ends of the Earth is now in brick-and-mortar and virtual theaters courtesy of KimStim. The film is currently a featured screening of the Austin Film Society–without them, this review wouldn’t have been possible. Please visit their virtual screening room to support their work!