Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Stars: Atsuko Maeda, Ryo Kase, Adiz Rajabov
Kiyoshi Kurosawa may have made a name for himself in horror (especially here in the West), but his filmography is far more diverse than one might assume, as anyone who caught the likes of Bright Future or Journey to the Shore can attest. He’s a prolific and incredibly versatile filmmaker. To the Ends of the Earth arrives in the UK via MUBI as a testament to his range and skill as we’re offered a quietly wise essay on feeling displaced and homesick.
Yoko (a wonderful turn from Atsuko Maeda) is a Japanese TV anchor shooting a variety of puff pieces in Uzbekistan with a modest crew. She tries local cuisine, goes fishing and – in one excruciating sequence – films take after take on a tumultuous theme park ride at the behest of her director. In spite of her evident displeasure, he needs a few more shots.
The owner of the theme park ride is concerned for her well-being, mistaking her for a minor. This sense of a woman being infantilised and the stoic frustrations held by Yoko become a key to unlocking what seems like an amiable – even aimless – piece. In fact, To the Ends of the Earth lightly but incisively pries into the mindset of a modern Japanese woman who, in spite of her best efforts and successes, still feels the impingement of the patriarchy upon her; from friends and foreigners alike. Yoko is a stranger in a strange land. She doesn’t speak the language and has little say in the work at hand. She misses her boyfriend back in Tokyo and writes him postcards, sends him texts.
During a day off, she plays tourist herself, though is frequently depicted as fearful and distrusting of her surroundings. As the light fails – and as she comes to seem increasingly lost – she happens upon a goat tied in a small pen. When one of their shooting days doesn’t pan out, Yoko suggests that they film her freeing the goat, setting it to loose to roam in some pleasant grasslands. Yoko appears to be projecting onto the animal, which doesn’t know its situation or the import Yoko has placed on it. When the staged event doesn’t pan out as she had expected, Yoko becomes animated and upset.
In the middle of the film, having grounded us in its world, pace and tone, Kurosawa makes a dramatic overture that feels like a daring fourth-wall break. Yoko happens upon a recital while touring a theatre. Suddenly she is singing to camera. Not her crew’s camera, but to Kurosawa’s; to us. A cut reveals Yoko is projecting a fantasy, and remains sat in the audience. But her desire to breakout has been shared with us directly, like an intimate secret.
Small conversations that she has one-on-one with her crew members help humanise them in Yoko’s eyes and in ours by extension. Everyone’s just doing their job. The trip is shaped as recreational for the sake of the viewers back home, but there’s a dry banality behind the scenes; a further sense of something being neither here not there. The trip taken in To the Ends of the Earth is both business and pleasure, but also, frequently, neither.
As this sense of displacement spreads though the crew like an infection, roles become mutable. Come the second half, Yoko is granted some of the autonomy and authorship that was so lacking at the start of her experiences. She becomes the leader, with her all-male colleagues literally in tow as she leads them around a vast open market. Her version of a travelogue is much more kinetic and prone to chance and immediacy. It’s a newfound buoyancy that gives the picture lift, but which also sends Yoko careering into trouble. Yoko’s translator will ultimately become her co-interrogator as the shoot spirals out of her control and into police custody.
Kurosawa does employ some of his reputable ‘horror’ tactics here, but the intentions and contexts are different. Indeed, To the Ends of the Earth keeps you on your toes throughout as it catalogs the many different anxieties encountered when travelling abroad. And, aside from a third act development that feels slightly clumsy and contrived, this is as good an entry point as any into the filmography of a director whose work often focuses on the beguiling intersection of the ordinary and extraordinary.