When Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s J-horror masterpiece Pulse hit American shores in the mid-2000s, one review negatively commented on how all the characters walked around as if they were already dead. While this certainly isn’t untrue, I never understood why this would be considered a bad thing. Indeed, this performance style has become a Kurosawa trademark, perfectly in sync with the hypnotically bleak landscapes he portrays. A cinematic poet of our modern state of alienation, Kurosawa’s worlds are populated by both actual ghosts and people whose existential despair turns them into lost souls haunting their own routine lives.
Because of this, critics of the director sometimes label his work as cold or humorless, but that would be discounting the incredible warmth found in films such as 2008’s Tokyo Sonata, in which an office worker pretends to keep going into work after getting fired to keep up a desperate façade for his family, and 2015’s Journey to the Shore, where a woman and her dead lover reconcile to bask in the natural beauty of Japan’s countryside one last time. And with To the Ends of the Earth, currently hitting virtual cinemas in North America after its 2019 Japanese theatrical release and subsequent festival run, Kurosawa may have just created his most amusingly lovely experience to date, under the guise of a travelogue in the foreign land of Uzbekistan.
The project has an atypically formal genesis, commissioned to mark the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Uzbekistan, and Kurosawa doesn’t shy away from these origins with the meta nature of his pleasantly head-scratching tale. Former J-pop singer Atsuko Maeda (who previously popped up in Kurosawa’s recent Before We Vanish) stars as Yoko, a television host who has traveled to the central Asian country with a crew to film the latest episode of her travel show. But despite the backdrop of breathtaking vistas, nothing seems to be going right.
Every segment the group tries to film ends up falling apart, sometimes hilariously so – one segment of Yoko riding on an intense (and dangerously rickety) carnival ride over and over again to get the perfect footage is no doubt one of the funniest and queasiest cinematic moments of the year. And yet Yoko continues to go through the motions, recording take after take of chipper intros and soundbites, even though she seems disinterested and barely aware of her surroundings behind-the-scenes. Like most of Kurosawa’s characters (and also, like many of us), Yoko drifts through her work and life with the same kind of energy as any of his signature specters.
Yet after finishing filming one day, Yoko all-of-a-sudden decides to leave her hotel and roam the streets, transforming To the Ends of the Earth from goofy showbiz satire into a meditative wandering exercise. Unable to speak the native language and with little-to-no sense of direction, Yoko wings it, hopping on a bus and relying on strangers to point her to a nearby bazaar. She manages at first, finally experiencing the city authentically from a whole new perspective, but eventually becomes overwhelmed and lost in what she starts to perceive as a hostile environment.
Admittedly, it can be frustrating at times to witness Yoko’s extreme passivity. During shooting, she never questions the flippant demands of her director or speaks up to a local man when he suggests that one water-based segment won’t work because a woman is present. Her inaction (and tiny stature) during the aforementioned carnival ride even leads a nervous onlooker to continually confuse her with a young child. When she begins to lose her bearings while walking the streets, she automatically reverts to a panicked mess instead of calmly trying to figure things out. Later on, when Yoko’s picked up by the police due to a misunderstanding, she can barely string two words together to explain the situation, even though a friendly local interpreter is present to help her. You almost want to reach through the screen to shake her out of whatever fugue state she’s trapped in.
But what Kurosawa seems to be digging into here is Yoko’s (and in a larger sense, any flippant tourist’s) lack of engagement with her surroundings. No wonder Yoko’s show stinks – she and her crew are shooting an episode that aims to interest viewers in Uzbekistan, yet no one involved cares enough about where they are to even figure out how to interact with their environment, even while touring a number of incredible landmarks.The director and crew are itching to move on to the next gig and Yoko herself is adrift in a life that is not quite going in the direction she had planned. It is eventually revealed that Yoko does have larger ambitions to be a singer but it is only after she gets news of a potential tragedy involving her firefighter boyfriend back home that she finally breaks out of her stupor, realizing what it means to be alive and exploring the world.
In similar ways to Tokyo Sonata, Kurosawa pulls off a tricky tonal balancing act of humor, pathos and even intermittent menace. Yoko’s walking sequences, meanwhile, are hypnotically pleasing in their own right, more so now that the corona-virus pandemic has made foreign travel essentially impossible. These elegantly paced strolls immediately create a longing for being able to explore new places and take in fresh viewpoints, in an effort to avoid becoming that downtrodden ghost of your own existence. Ultimately, that’s the most essential human quandary there is.
To the Ends of the Earth is available to rent in KimStim’s Virtual Cinema.
- Release Date: 12/11/2020