To the Ends of the Earth
2020, NR, 120 min. Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Starring Atsuko Maeda, Shōta Sometani, Tokio Emoto, Adiz Rajabov, Ryô Kase.
REVIEWED By Jenny Nulf, Fri., Dec. 18, 2020
When Sofia Coppola made Lost in Translation, she had no idea a wave of Japan-set travelogues where characters “find themselves” would soon follow. This fetishization of Japan has made it the number one location for twenty-somethings to wander and internalize. In To the Ends of the Earth, Kiyoshi Kurosawa is able to flip this trope on its head. In his film, the leading woman is (perfectly) a travel program personality, wandering the streets of the landlocked Uzbekistan, missing her country and her loved ones.
Yoko is played by Maeda, a Japanese idol-turned-actress who has become a Kurosawa regular. To the Ends of the Earth is the first of his films to utilize Maeda’s strong singing voice, and in a bit of tongue-in-cheek she plays an actress who longs to be a singer. Throughout the film, Kurosawa sprinkles in moments of surreal fantasy: dreamy sequences where Yoko pictures herself singing Édith Piaf’s “L'Hymne à l'Amour” in glamorous locations, like the Navoi Theater in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. The theatre is her story’s anchor. Introduced mid-film, its delicate stone and subtle pastels draw Yoko in without knowledge of its connections to her homeland. Built by Japanese prisoners of war during World War II, the magnificent theatre represents not just Yoko’s dream, but her yearning for her country.
More than any film before it, To the Ends of the Earth fully embodies the isolation of culture shock. Where Yoko’s job as a travel program personality often invites visions of mystique and adventure, for her it’s a tiresome job filled with sexism, confusion, and fake smiles. On camera Yoko is vibrant and sweet, but as soon as the camera shuts off, her posture sinks, and her eyes look dazed, lost. On days off, she wanders bazaars and gets spooked by the local police, language being a terrifying barrier that keeps her from realizing she was just pointing her camera at the wrong building. Her on-camera adventures, eating new cuisines and hunting for legendary fish, do not reflect the reality of being stuck in an unfamiliar country.
The mixture of Yoko’s ache for home and her job resentment gives To the Ends of the Earth a solemn vibe. Kurosawa’s directorial style has always been pensive and measured, stretching a moment so his character’s fear, sadness, or pain pulsate through the screen. While it is not a horror movie, Yoko’s fear throughout it is still tangible. It’s a slow burn of a film, one the creeps through the consciousness. But it is not without levity, and Kurosawa’s choice to conclude the film with Yoko belting Piaf’s song in the mountains wearing a confident smile is hopeful. For like Coppola’s Lost in Translation, To the Ends of the Earth is about a lost woman finding her voice among unfamiliarity and uncertainty.
To the Ends of the Earth is available as a virtual cinema release.