Journey To The Shore (Kishibe no tabi)
Japan (2015) Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Usually when a loved one passes away our initial reaction is want them back. So, what would you do if they did come back to life? Known here in the West for his creepy horror films, Kiyoshi Kurosawa takes this premise and instead explores it through a wistful, if languorous, character driven emotional drama.
Sourced from the novel by Kazumi Yumoto, widowed piano teacher Mizuki Yabuuchi (Eri Fukatsu) somehow manages to draw her late husband Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano) from the other side by making some sweet bean dumplings. Despite having drowned himself three years earlier and his body apparently ravaged by crabs (the crustacean type), Yusuke is still just as Mizuki remembered him prior to his death.
The reason for Yusuke’s surprise return is so he can take Mizuki with him on a journey to repay the people that helped him get back home whom he feels indebted to. Along the way, the reunited couple helped other restless spirits pass on, while helping the grieving living come to terms with their losses.
With his horror movie background Kurosawa has dealt with restless spirits in his films before so by changing tact and opting for this gentle reverie-like tale, which stands alongside his more mainstream dramas like Tokyo Sonata than noted chillers like Vital, Kurosawa will either earn a new following or exclude the shocker loving faithful.
However because of the film’s languid pace and refusal to put a defined supernatural stamp on the proceedings, mainstream audiences may also find it a little hard to engage with this film. It is not as glacial as some arthouse films and doesn’t indulge in pointless visual longueurs but the 128-minute run time isn’t wholly justified, with some fat desperately in need of trimming.
There is a subversive streak running through the film in how it presents members of the afterlife – everyone can see and communicate with Yusuke, who is still tactile and sentient and can perform all functions as a living being. Not your average ghost then so what is the deal? Is this Mizuki’s grief playing tricks with her or have we been grossly misinformed all these years about spooks and spectres?
If you allow this indulgence then the film will have piqued your curiosity and you will be rewarded with a whimsical existentialist tale of a journey to redemption, closure and a look at how we handle our grief. For Mizuki though, when Yusuke returns she is oddly neither shocked nor scared – she calmly welcomes her husband him then berates him for not taking his shoes off.
As the journey rolls on more facts are forthcoming about the marriage suggest Mizuki’s stoic reaction was the result of indiscretions on Yusuke’s part for which she was unable to forgive him. An affair with a younger colleague at his dental hospital, Tomoko Matsuzaki (Yu Aoi), is openly discussed – Mizuki even pays her a visit for her own closure – but this is as far as revealing Yusuke’s flaws goes.
Elsewhere, it seems Yusuke made a good impression on all the people he encountered on his journey. The first person he repays is elderly newspaper seller Shimakage (Masao Komatsu), followed by husband and wife restaurant owners Jinnai (Tetsuya Chiba) and Fujie (Nozomi Muraoka) and finally they arrive in the country to stay with farmer Hoshitani (Akira Emoto), his widowed daughter-in-law, Kaoru (Kaoru Okunuki), and her young son, Ryota (Daiki Fujino).
This is where the story takes a different turn in that it isn’t any of the living that needs help, yet they are the ones still suffering the most. Rather amusingly for Mizuki, Yusuke is given a hero’s return by the whole village and is required to continue his lectures on live, death and the universe he started before he left!
As sardonic as this may be the overall tone is light on humour, taking its subject very seriously even with the unique approach. The mood is understandably protean, jumping from melancholic to hopeful, dour to jaunty, yet flows without being jarring or heavy handed. One visual leitmotif employed is the dimming of the lights when an episode reaches its emotional climax, denoting the imminent lifting of the consuming darkness.
Lacking visual effects and overt camera tricks, the ethereal effect Yusuke’s presence brings with him is conveyed through the stillness of the moment and laconic activities. The most we get to any supernatural affectations is a rising mist in the countryside, while the sight of crystal clear waterfall, believed to be a portal to the other world, is capable of conjuring up mystical images through this suggestion alone.
Perhaps this film is too quiet and for many this it will feel more like a Japanese tourist board promotional video than an evocative supernatural drama, the often plodding pace negating the effect of the latter aspect. Similarly distracting is the musical soundtrack, often overshadowing a delicate moment with its melodramatic leanings or being too whimsical for its own good.
What can’t be faulted is Kurosawa’s skillful direction. While this film is closer in to Tokyo Sonata than horror fare like Pulse, it does demonstrate how versatility in a director is both important and rewarding on both sides of the camera. Long time Kurosawa collaborator Tadanobu Asano seems to be almost drifting as the revenant Yusuke, such is the subtlety of his performance.
Stealing the film however is Eri Fukatsu, last seen as a deadly alien in the Parasyte films, playing the complete opposite as Mizuki. A nuanced essaying of sangfroid humanity, empathy and emotional self-control, Fukatsu’s richly engaging performance reminds us of how underrated an actress she is. On that note, it is also odd to see Yu Aoi play such a nasty role for this natural babyface young woman.
If you can get past the tempered pace you will find Journey To The Shore to be a quietly charming meditation on life after death and the burden of grief, although mileage will understandably vary on that front.