Even when depicting ordinary Japanese life, as in “Tokyo Sonata,” Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films feel mysterious. He’s best known in the US for two horror films, 1997’s “Cure” and 2001’s “Pulse.” In the first, a man recognizes the gaping alienation of Japanese society so well that he can hypnotize anyone into committing murder for him. In the second, ghosts launch themselves off the Internet and take over the world, leading to an apocalyptic conclusion.
The director has been having a bit of a revival in the US lately: Metrograph streams his killer jellyfish film “Bright Future” from December 4 to 10, and the streaming service MUBI showed an entire series of his films in November. His second most recent film, “To the Ends of the Earth” from last year, isn’t genre fare, but it retains his customary mood of taking place in a demon-haunted world, to lift a phrase from a Carl Sagan book.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa doesn’t play to his strengths in “To the Ends of the Earth”
The first half of this film starts off quite strong. Kurosawa shows us Yoko’s (Atsuko Maeda) position in the public eye from the very first scene, where we observe her watching her apply lipstick in the mirror. The film doesn’t sexually objectify Yoko, but she’s almost always at the center of its widescreen, Band-Aid-shaped frames. Even when she’s off work as a TV travel show host, she’s acutely aware that she’s on public inspection. (Although this is the third time Maeda and Kurosawa have worked together, her background as a pop singer fits this role.)
In Uzbekistan, she gets a ride to a lake where she’s filming her show. The program’s unpleasant behind-the-scenes reality is concealed from viewers, as she puts on a false façade of happy life as a tourist. For instance, she finds an Uzbek rice dish inedible but praises it on-air and is twice forced to go on an amusement park ride that works more like a leftover KGB torture device. She tries to free the goat Okku, but he’s captured again by the show’s crew after his “liberation” from his owner is filmed by them.
Yoko does not speak Uzbek, spending much of her free time roaming around the country without fully understanding what’s going on around her. The film is devoted to her subjectivity, refusing to subtitle any language other than Japanese. The bilingual Temur (Adiz Rajabov), who works as an interpreter on the show, is the only Uzbek she can connect with directly. At first, this distance feels faintly xenophobic, especially in a scene where a scared Yoko runs through the street as hustling Uzbeks approach her. But the fears expressed in “To the End of the Earth” have more to do with just being in unfamiliar surroundings.
At their weakest, Kurosawa’s films can spend two hours spinning around empty portent. He’s typically at his best making genre work, because the dictates of horror or sci-fi force him to express a vague discomfort as something more concrete. Only a few years into the start of the Internet’s popularity, he came up with an extremely resonant metaphor for the way it has left us more isolated, benefiting from its opaque nature at a time when other horror films inspired by online life moralized about murder and torture being live-streamed.
But Kurosawa’s films are capable of simultaneously telling too much and too little. Even “Pulse” could do without the scene in which college students talk about a computer program simulating the push-and-pull of human attraction. In “To the Ends of the Earth” Okku symbolizes Yoko’s desire for freedom so blatantly that her glimpse of him running wild near the film’s end might induce groaning.
This film has frequently been likened to a horror movie, and I suppose it expresses a sense of terror without falling into the genre. For a male director, Kurosawa has a good feel for the faint menace that everyday crowds hold for women; although no overt threat is communicated and nothing actually happens between them, he shows Yoko picking up her pace when she walks past a group of men in a parking garage.
The film was made in close cooperation with Uzbekistan’s tourist board, and its original concept was given to the production company Loaded Films as an official commemoration of 25 years of relations between Japan and Uzbekistan. So its avoidance of the country’s checkered human rights record is not surprising. But some kind of critique still comes across when Yoko gets chased by cops and arrested merely for taking photos of something they might find illegal.
In the end, there’s little mystery in “To the Ends of the Earth,” while Kurosawa’s best films overflow with it. The fears plaguing Yoko are explained, and her new mood of liberation is symbolized by her performance of a treacly song on top of a mountain. We’re closer to “The Sound of Music” than “Cure” or “Pulse.” “To the Ends of the Earth” tries too hard to be a profound character study, and the strain shows, while the over-extended length and reliance on vibe also become a drag. It ends up as less than meets the eye.
TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH | Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa | In Japanese with English subtitles | KimStim | Starts streaming through Metrograph on Dec. 11 | metrograph.com
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