starring Atsuko Maeda, Ryo Kase, Shota Sometani, Adiz Radjabov
written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
by Walter Chaw Kiyoshi Kurosawa's still best known to Western audiences, if he's known at all, as one of the progenitors of the Japanese J-Horror movement, which gained traction in the United States in the years immediately following 9/11. Once the U.S. joined Japan as an industrialized nation experiencing the detonation of a large-scale weapon of mass destruction over a populated area, I think it also took on Japan's cinematic mechanisms for coping: nihilistic horror films where evil comes with neither warning nor explanation--and city-levelling kaiju eiga in the form of a nearly-uninterrupted glut of superhero movies. Kurosawa's twin masterpieces, Cure and Pulse, deal in issues of technophobia and isolation with a painterly eye and a poet's patience. They are among the most frightening films of the last quarter-century, proving perpetually current as our world, and our reality with it, continues to fray. His movies used to feel like cautionary tales; now they feel like prophecy. Pulse, especially, with its tale of ghosts in the machine and airplanes falling from the sky, throbs with an insistent, hopeless melancholy that speaks to the essential loneliness of existence. It's as important a work in its way as anything by Camus or Sartre.
On the first day of their shoot on Aydar Lake (which Yoko helpfully narrates is an accident of ancient agricultural diversion), where the crew have been sent on what is more or less a snipe hunt, Yoko gamely puts on waders with a hole in them and recites her script in that hyper-singsong cheer familiar to Japanese television watchers. Once the camera's off, she's quiet and sad. She tells Yoshioka that the reason their hired fisherman can't find the mythical fish is because she's had a run of bad luck lately. The fisherman, for his part, agrees but blames the fact of her being a woman on their failure. To the Ends of the Earth details the myriad humiliations Yoko suffers in silence. She eats uncooked rice a vendor apologizes she can't fix because her fire isn't hot enough ("It's edible," her director says; "But not digestible," Yoko replies, though she eats it anyway); she allows herself to be excluded from creative meetings where she would be the only woman at the table; and she generally acts like a professional at all times. She takes comfort in solitude, texting her never-seen fireman boyfriend back in Tokyo and, in a couple of scary sequences, exploring Uzbekistan's bazaars on her own without knowing the area nor a word of Uzbek.
Then things begin to change. After a harrowing sequence where Yoko gets thrown about in a carnival ride not once but three times, to the ride operator's horror ("You should not force her--she could die") and her director's indifference, Yoko vomits, gathers herself, and nails her exit scene like a pro. That night, she goes exploring, discovering an opera house where a woman sings a beautiful aria on stage. Nodding off in the audience, Yoko imagines herself the centre of that attention, singing to a rapt audience. Chased into the night by a guard who may have just been asking if she's all right, Yoko directs her crew to buy a goat she's seen tied in a small yard so she can set it free. "Wild dogs will eat it," the locals warn her, but she insists, and so they film it. Then they give her a camera, and she runs through all the places she's found on her own, her heightened emotions genuine now that she's reclaimed her voice and the power of her own gaze.
How To the Ends of the Earth ends is as lovely--and strange--as anything from one of countryman Takashi Miike's forays into different forms and genres. It's Kurosawa's Lost in Translation, essentially: a film about a travelling artist, adrift and searching in a place entirely foreign, who finds purchase at last in another snipe hunt that turns out this time to be in pursuit of a real thing. Kurosawa lands on an extreme close-up of Yoko's face in the final shot as she looks out into the audience. There's a theory in art that when artists first began to paint their subjects looking out, frankly and aggressively, through their fourth walls is when art became modern and humanist. It was a dispelling of modesty and a challenge to voyeurism. For Yoko--the pretty little thing on television people enjoy watching eat disgusting things and get abused generally into a laughing stock or worse--this reclamation of her image and voice is as lovely as it is powerful. To the Ends of the Earth will be seen as an anomaly for Kurosawa, yet, for a filmmaker who's made his name for the most part detailing the way this world works at destroying an individual's identity and connection, it's not only his most personal film but his most hopeful one, too.