To The Ends Of The Earth (Tabi no owari sekai no hajimari)
Japan/Uzbekistan (2019) Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
“Our culture is different from yours”
Maybe not something that needs to be made obvious by a native of the country you are visiting but unfortunately, it is a fact often ignored by travellers, not always through ignorance but for taking certain things for granted as being universal. Yet, what do we travel to a foreign land for if not to learn and experience something different?
Yoko Fujita (Atsuko Maeda) is in Uzbekistan filming a TV travelogue feature with a small crew comprising of grumpy director Yoshioka (Shota Sometani), taciturn cameraman Iwao (Ryo Kase), geeky runner Sasaki (Tokio Emoto), and local translator Temur (Adiz Rajabov). Not everything is going well – a mythical fish doesn’t show up, male locals aren’t welcoming towards Yoko, and filming permissions keep being denied.
If being the only female in the group wasn’t enough, Yoko struggles with her internal confidence issues and loneliness in a strange country where she isn’t understood by her host nation and vice versa. The further into despair Yoko feels the more imposing her surroundings become, yet she manages to find solace in the unlikeliest of places whilst her sense of professionalism and duty prevent Yoko for giving into her torment.
The best actors are not those we see on film, TV, or stage but the people we live with, work with, pass by in the street, or serve us in a shop or bar. Putting on a brave face, these people are showing the world that everything is okay; the reality is inside, they are suffering unimaginable mental anguish, emotional torture, or plagued with fears and worries.
For the third time in his career, Kiyoshi Kurosawa leaves his native Japan to present us with such a character in To The Ends Of The Earth. Yoko, a smiling, upbeat, and positive TV personality to the public, but a desperately sad and lonely young woman in private. But Yoko’s journey of self-discovery is only part of the reason for this co-production with Uzbekistan, designed to commemorate 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Another historical milestone is also marked in this film – 2019 was the 70th anniversary of the building of the Navoi Theatre by Japanese POW at the behest of the Russian army. Temur relates this story to his Japanese visitors as the reason he became interested in Japanese culture and eventually a translator, so he could repay Japanese visitors to his country by way of thanking the soldiers for their selflessness under such duress.
But, Temur is effectively a one off in this tale as the denizens of Uzbekistan look upon their visitors in wonder, Yoko in particular turning heads and a magnet for unwanted attention. Unfortunately, Yoko can’t turn to the crew as she is considered a “star” thus is treated as separate to them, and Temur isn’t always on hand either. This leaves Yoko to text her fire fighter boyfriend back home in Tokyo but he too is often busy with work.
Elsewhere, Yoko encounters inherent sexism from many local males, though Temur gallantly censors the worst comments. One objective of the trip was to find a mythical fish but Yoko can’t catch anything; a fisherman explains her female scent puts the fish off. At a theme park, a male attendant objects to Yoko trying his ride as it isn’t safe for “underage girls”, making an assumption about her looks that isn’t played for comedy.
Despite being a celebratory travelogue for Uzbekistan, Kurosawa cheekily turns this into a character study of a fragile figure in a hazardous environment, covertly painting his host nation in a dubious light. In the interest of balance, he also highlights the arrogance of a patriarchal attitude in director Yoshioka not caring about Yoko’s suffering as long as he gets his footage. For instance, he has Yoko ride a brutal attraction three times in succession then expects her piece to camera to be all jolly before she throws up!
Kurosawa deftly reverts to his horror past during the scenes of Yoko’s solo walkabouts in which simple things like getting a bus or walking through a bazaar are akin to the nerve-wracking navigation through a forest of zombies. The chiaroscuro applied to an alleyway Yoko flees to when chased by the police heightens the sense of dread she is feeling, her quaking body hiding in the shadows in the foreground whilst silhouettes of the police loom ominously in the background.
Yet, there are times when the mood appears to veer towards satire regarding the issue of language barriers and cultural ignorance. When Yoko is eventually caught, the police officer, via Temur, asks her why she didn’t explain her situation or listen to the officers instead of running off. I mean, duh! But he does offer this cogent thought: “If we don’t talk to each other, we can’t get to know each other” which I presume covers the remit pertaining to the cooperation pleasantries.
Visually, Kurosawa does capture plenty of stunning shots of Uzbekistan’s mountainous vistas and cultural landmarks to give us a taste of its aesthetic appeal. Just as engaging is Atsuko Maeda who has come a long way since transitioning from being in J-Pop hydra AKB48 to aspiring actress. This is her coming out role, the one that will have everyone talking and deservedly so. Her essaying as the protean kawaii TV host to frightened girl lost in a nightmare is magnetic and ethereal. She even sings a bit of Piaf for those who miss her previous job.
To The Ends Of The Earth sees Kurosawa take himself in a number of directions to create a unique film that bears his trademarks with a slightly different spin on them. One can enjoy this as a slow burning psychodrama without being burdened by the multicultural subtext yet the attendant messages are worth thinking about. But if we take anything away from this film, it is this – don’t always be fooled by a content smile. Please.