To the Ends of the Earth

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The Japanese writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) first made his name with horror movies, but even though he’s moved away from the genre at a superficial level, there’s often something dark lurking beneath what often looks like a bright and clean surface. Exhibit A: To the Ends of the Earth.

It looks like a film about a young female Japanese TV reporter and her all-male crew making a travelogue in Uzbekistan. Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) has been hired because she’s pretty and professional and able to muster up that peculiar level of boggle-eyed enthusiasm for her assignment that Japanese TV requires. On-camera she’s all wild gesticulation, her voice squeaking away at an elevated pitch; off-camera she’s measured, introspective, dour even.

Her mood is not helped by her encounters with the locals – a fisherman blames the lack of anything in the nets he’s put out on Yoko’s smell; a roadside eatery visited for a segment on rustic local food serves her a dish so undercooked the rice is crunchy; at a funfair for a “fun” segment the ride Yoko is put on is so vigorous it makes her vomit.

Meanwhile, off duty, Yoko sits in her room, phones her boyfriend for “I miss you” conversations and goes out exploring alone, getting lost, stumbling home in the dark, afraid and tearful. At one point she comes across a goat in a pen, in a dark corner of the city, one lonely tethered creature communing with another.

Though this isn’t a horror movie, Yoko acts like a horror movie heroine, the single woman at bay, resourceful in spite of her fears. Her male crew function much as the “other guys” in a horror movie – they say things, do things, but most of it has no consequence. The film is not about them. And the locals – perhaps they’re the zombies.

The crew in the middle of nowhere
The crew up a lonely mountain

Reaching about to stand this absurd claim up, I will just point out that Kurosawa has done this sort of thing before. His 2015 movie, Journey to the Shore, was a zombie movie served up as a relationship drama, with dead people walking among the living as if it were an everyday event. To the Ends of the Earth pares the genre back even further – Kurosawa is a fan of directors like Don Siegel, Clint Eastwood and Robert Aldrich, meat and potatoes guys with an aversion to the fancy – this is a film about TV crew shooting a travelogue series and it looks exactly like that. As if Kurosawa had simply strapped an extra camera and sound person to shoot the people doing the shooting.

Travelogue TV shows like this – famous chefs seem to be a particular go-to at the moment – are heavily formatted and pre-arranged but operate as if everything is happening as-is. They are “structured reality”, in the parlance, and there is also a feel of the structured reality to all the interactions Yoko has with her crew.

But the film also functions as a travelogue itself, visiting Samarkand and Tashkent, exotic Silk Road cities dotted with reminders of the Soviet era but still resonating to the names of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.

As with Journey to the Shore, high drama is what To the Ends of the Earth is about. Yoko is having a personal crisis, though you’d barely know it, at least until the final half hour, when Kurosawa piles on the incident and ups the pace for a mad dash to the line.

Kurosawa is a contemporary of Hirokazu Koreeda, the Japanese master of the quiet personal drama. They share a working technique, to an extent, though Kurosawa for all his naturalistic tendencies is clearly engaging with genre, seeing how far he can push it till it breaks down. Which might explain why this unusual film finishes on a song, as if we’ve suddenly accidentally backed into The Sound of Music.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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