Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s best work has always been when he’s stepped away from straight horror: The psychological thriller of “Cure” and family drama of “Tokyo Sonata” his two stand-out films. His latest, “To the Ends of the Earth”, shows a young woman quite literally finding her voice while lost and confused in a foreign land.
Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) is a young TV travel show presenter in rural Uzbekistan working with a three man crew. Along with their translator Temur (Adiz Rajabov) they join a local fisherman to hunt a giant fish of local legend. But, as Yoko makes a brave face for the camera, they have no luck; the fisherman blaming the fact that the scent of a woman scares the fish away. Dejected, they pass on to a nearby village where director Yoshioka (Shota Sometani) talks her in to eating undercooked food for the camera. She does so with a smile.
Not exactly feeling the love from her crew, she decides to head off on her own to visit the local bazaars. But, while a travel show presenter, she knows little about the language, geography or culture of the country she is currently within. Lost, she wanders the streets alone, scared, eventually finding a bus that takes her to her hotel. On her lone journey, however, she does find something she can perhaps connect with.
Once they reach the capital Tashkent, they realise they have little workable footage. Again, Yoko wanders off alone, discovering the Navoi Theatre. Here she has a moment of revelation. On hearing Temur’s story regarding the theatre, the crew seem inspired, but Yoshioka is less convinced that this will be “useable” footage. They carry on, with Yoko enthusiastic for the camera for one last try, but again her wandering sees her lost, as the closer she gets to the local milieu, the more she runs away from it.
As Temur describes when alone with Yoko, Uzbekistan is a landlocked nation in the centre of the Eurasian continent. As such, to him the sea, and indeed an island nation like Japan, represent freedom. There is perhaps an obvious metaphor at work here in the cultural differences between the nationalities. Yoko is a TV presenter who can go anywhere in the world, yet feels little freedom in her work. Her decision to release a goat for the show is a somewhat bizarre one, as is the usually rigid Yoshioka’s willingness to humour her. What they end up with isn’t necessarily good footage, but perhaps from the experience they learn a little about the land they are in.
The “tourist gaze” is a theme running through “To the Ends of the Earth”. The crew end up with little to work with and are often frustrated: unable to locate mythical beasts; eating underprepared food; and getting lost in the bazaars. This is what the viewers will want to see. But the real Uzbekistan is seen when the camera stops.
But this is countered by the nature of modern tourism itself. While smiling for the camera, when out wandering on her own Yoko is fearful, running away from anyone speaking to her in local dialect, including the police. Filming or taking photos of official buildings in restricted areas is something commonly forbidden without permission and something, as a tour guide, she should perhaps know. But when approached, she runs, seemingly terrified by anyone not speaking Japanese.
The Navoi Theatre is a central element towards the film’s conclusion, though as Temur diligently explains his motivations for learning Japanese, one feels this could be wedged-in to cement the two nations’ co-production to mark the anniversary of diplomatic relations. Yoko feels a connection to the Navoi Theatre, but is this due to some unspoken telepathy of its links to the Japanese? Perhaps why Yoko feels more comfortable there.
But Yoko’s connection to the theatre is two-fold. Her real desire is to sing, as she confides in cameraman Iwao (Ryo Kase). This leads to an unexpected, and somewhat awkward, moment inside the theatre. But again, from having found her voice, she is brought back to where she is instantly, again running away. Inevitably, the final shot sees Yoko return to her true calling, and it appears to be the lead in “The Sound of Music”. The concluding shot isn’t perhaps an image you’d want to end on, and as “To the Ends of the Earth” builds, it deserves a less awkward conclusion.
But Kurosawa is teaching us about the pitfalls of modern day tourism, which Yoko learns, but has she has learnt more about herself than the country? As she is taught the hard way, perhaps she will learn, and indeed enjoy, more about the country if she took the time to stop and listen to its people. But for her viewers at home, Uzbekistan could have been any of the four corners of the Earth.