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.

Miyamoto 宮本から君へ Dir: Tetsuya Mariko (2019)

Miyamoto   From Miyamoto To You Film Poster

宮本から君へ Miyamoto kara Kimi e

Release Date: September 27th, 2019

Duration: 129 mins.

Director: Tetsuya Mariko

Writer: Tetsuya Mariko, Takehiko Minato (Screenplay), Hideki Arai (Manga)

Starring: Sosuke Ikematsu, Yu Aoi, Arata Iura, Kenichi Matsuyama, Tokio Emoto, Kanji Furutachi, Jiro Sato, Pierre Taki,

Website IMDB

Miyamoto is based on a seinen manga by Hideki Arai that ran from 1990 to 1994 in the magazine Weekly Morning. This slice-of-life story, based somewhat on Arai’s background, detailed the maturation of Hiroshi Miyamoto, a young man Miyamoto 宮本から君へ Mangafrom Yokohama who is uncertain of himself as he is fresh out of college and new to living life in Tokyo. Scenes of work and romance are tied to his struggle to establish himself as a man and start a family and everything is given the gaman/gambarimasu treatment with some shocking moments of violence and lots of hot-blooded emotions as he holds true to ideals of love and honour even if it puts him in a world of hurt.

For many international audiences, this 2019 movie adaptation will be their first contact with the franchise. It is a direct continuation of a 2018 drama. Both the drama and film were written and directed by Tetsuya Mariko, the man who helmed the absolutely bleak portrait of lost youth Destruction Babies (2016). Indeed the movie version of Miyamoto was filmed from September 09th to October 30th after the TV show finished airing in the summer of 2018, and so, a director with a strong vision reunites with a cast of great actors as they adapt the middle part of the manga and the main character, the titular Miyamoto, moves on to romancing a new woman, Yasuko.

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Hanagatami 花筐 Dir: Nobuhiko Obayashi (2017)

Hanagatami    Hanagatami Film Poster

花筐 「Hanagatami

Running Time: 169 mins.

Release Date: December 16th, 2017

Director:  Nobuhiko Obayashi

Writer: Nobuhiko Obayashi, Chiho Katsura(Screenplay), Kazuo Dan (Original Novel)

Starring: Shunsuke Kubozuka, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Keishi Nagatsuka, Tokio Emoto, Mugi Kadowaki, Tetsuya Takeda, Takako Tokiwa, Hirona Yamazaki,

IMDB Website

Is there subject-matter that film as a medium is better than others at capturing? Perhaps it is emotions. Or maybe memories. Filmmakers can examine them in many expressive ways and with an incredible arsenal of technical tools open to the cast and crew, imagination really is the limit. Enter the adventurous Nobuhiko Obayashi, a man not shy of being creative as proven in his career which stretches back to the 1950s and features a long filmography that trades in fantasy, experimentalism, and surrealism. He is best known for the haunted-house musical House (1977) but nothing will prepare those familiar solely with that fun film for Hanagatami! Obayashi’s limiters are off in this deep-dive into the precious memories of a man who lived through an age of emotional turbulence as Japan hurtled headlong into the chaos of World War II.

Hanagatami Image 4

It is the summer of 1941 in Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture. 17-year-old Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka) has just travelled from his parents’ home in Amsterdam to stay with his wealthy aunt Keiko Ema (Takako Tokiwa) in her large manor. He will share it with his sickly cousin Mina (Honoka Yahagi) who suffers from tuberculosis. While there, he is attending a school where falls under the influence of the grim and philosophical Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka) who is physically infirm, and Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), a boy both strong in body and mind and with a pure soul that attracts Toshihiko. There are girls his age, too. Kira’s cousin, the melancholy Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki) who carries a camera she loves to use to capture people’s existence and the more playful and positive Akine (Hirona Yamazaki) whose mischievous grin and compassion for others lights up all occasions.

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Dynamite Graffiti 素敵なダイナマイトスキャンダル Dir: Masanori Tominaga (2018)

Dynamite Graffiti   Dynamite Graffiti Film Poster

素敵なダイナマイトスキャンダル Suteki na Dainamaito Sukyandaru

Running Time: 138 mins.

Release Date: March 17th, 2018

Director: Masanori Tominaga

Writer: Masanori Tominaga (Screenplay), Akira Suei (Autobiographical Essay)

Starring: Tasuku Emoto, Atsuko Maeda, Toko Miura, Machiko Ono, Kazunobu Mineta, Yutaka Matsushige, 

Website IMDB

Adult magazines are big business worldwide, including in Japan where it is still possible to walk into some convenience stores and see them on open display although in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics, this is getting cleaned up. Masanori Tominaga’s biopic Dynamite Graffiti tells the history of raunchy magazine mogul Akira Suei, starting from childhood to the peak of his infamy in the 1980s when his publications had a circulation of over 300,000 copies a month and he publicly challenged censors with his magazine’s content.

Tominaga aims big and scores some smiles with behind-the-scenes looks at the smut trade but the scale of his script’s ambitions in trying to capture changing times delivers a cast of characters who are little more than cyphers while Suei remains a joker.

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