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To the Ends of the Earth 旅のおわり世界のはじまり (2019) Dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

To the Ends of the Earth        To the Ends of the Earth Film Poster

旅のおわり世界のはじまり  「Tabi no Owari Sekai no Hajimari」

Release Date: June 14th, 2019

Duration: 120 mins.

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Writer: Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Screenplay),

Starring: Atsuko Maeda, Ryo Kase, Shota Sometani, Tokio Emoto, Adiz Rajabov,

Website     IMDB

To the Ends of the Earth is an international co-production that was commissioned to commemorate 25 years of diplomatic relations between Japan and Uzbekistan. It’s written and directed by horror auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who eschews using serial killers and ghosts as sources of fear and turns to tourism as he makes a moving travelogue-cum-character study of an introverted young woman overcoming anxieties in an alien environment and coming to understand herself better.

We follow Yoko (Atsuko Maeda), the young host of a Japanese TV show who is on assignment in Uzbekistan with a small crew (played by Shota Sometani, Ryo Kase, Tokio Emoto, Adiz Rajabov) as they seek out interesting places to go and exciting things to do. Rather than the glamour and fun of the finished product, we witness a light satire surrounding the drudgery of a production where nothing quite works out. A mythical fish is a no-show at a mountain lake, food is undercooked in a culinary section, and, in one wince-inducing bit, Yoko boards a seemingly innocuous ride at a theme park only to end up being tossed around like a rag doll. Throughout it all she shows professionalism by following her director’s orders and hosting everything with a grin (or gritted teeth when it comes to the ride) but as the assignment grinds on, we see her positive façade fade and her authentic side emerge.

There is considerable downtime between filming and Kurosawa emphasises these moments in his narrative to show that the real Yoko is more introspective than her onscreen personality lets on. She often opts to eat alone and skips production meetings to stay in her hotel room so she can spend time messaging her boyfriend in Tokyo for comfort. Her anxieties are most pointedly felt when she goes on solo daytime jaunts. Alone and with just a map and a few words of English to communicate, a trip to somewhere like Chorsu Bazaar becomes nightmarish as she loses confidence in herself, finds crowds of hagglers harrowing and gets lost in back streets because she is too intimidated by the locals to ask for help. To build the intensity of panic to match the increasing tension Yoko feels, Kurosawa uses techniques familiar from his horror repertoire, transitioning from touristic locations to uninviting urban areas shaded by fluctuating light, menacing shadows, and scary sounds, while he also refrains from subtitling Uzbek dialogue to reflect Yoko’s incomprehension as well as to make circumstances opaque for the audience. 

Yoko’s alienation and distress is conveyed so well in these sequences that they will ring true to anyone who has travelled and felt the buzz of tension and shrivelling of the heart that comes with encountering and shrinking from the unknown. However, after these tumultuous situations, we see Yoko develop as she reflects upon her angst and it is tourism that allows her to push past her fears.

During her wanderings she often encounters something or someone that teaches her to move forward with these sequences skilfully allowing her journey, her dreamlife and Uzbekistan to intersect. The most impactful moment, and the turning point in the film, comes when Yoko is drawn to explore the Navoi theatre in Tashkent by the sound of a woman singing. Tracking shots follow her journey through ornate rooms beautifully decorated in the style of different regions of Uzbekistan until there is a seamless segue to fantasy as she reaches a stage and suddenly bursts out with the Edith Piaf song Hymne à l’Amour (愛の讃歌) while accompanied by an orchestra. This display of confidence runs counter to our impressions of her true nature and reveals her dream that surpasses presenting travel shows. Her ability to bridge the gap between dream and reality soon comes after as she learns that the theatre was built by Japanese POWs after World War II and seems to relate to their story of finding release from fear through dedicating themselves to art. This message is reinforced when she takes the time to have a frank conversation with her taciturn cameraman who reveals his own career dilemmas and offers philosophical advice amounting to the journey is just as important as the destination. It is an honest and insightful look at how people can grow from experiences. While the remainder of the film is dedicated to Yoko struggling to master herself and still making mistakes, a growing understanding of herself allows her character arc to have a positive trajectory. 

To the Ends of the Earth Image Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) with a Camera

None of this would work if ex-AKB48 idol Atsuko Maeda wasn’t a good actor and she gives a compelling performance here. This is her third film with Kurosawa following the offbeat thriller Seventh Code (2013) and alien invasion drama Before We Vanish (2017) and it is her most complex role to date. Kurosawa keeps the camera focussed on her and she reveals how much she has grown as a performer as she displays a sensitivity and vulnerability that guarantees audience empathy that keeps us riveted as we watch her stumble through various Uzbek locations to stride towards an uplifting conclusion that sees her achieve some self-realisation after which she can belt out a full rendition of Hymne à l’Amour with a dazzling shine of confidence that caps her character’s journey. It’s said that travel helps people find themselves and it turns out to be true here.

My review was first published over at V-Cinema on December 03rd.

Happy New Year to everyone. I hope 2021 is the year we can master ourselves and improve the world.