The pleasingly crisscross career of Japanese auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa takes one more leftfield go with the movie ‘To The Ends of the Earth,’ appointed to mark the 25th anniversary of discretionary relations between his homeland and the central Asian republic of Uzbekistan. An erratic, freewheeling issue which semi-entertainingly chronicles the wanderings and misfortunes of a Japanese TV moderator compiling a travelogue about the landlocked nation, the delicately paced odyssey was quite warmly received as the closer at Locarno.
The front-and-center presence of J-pop icon Atusko Maeda, in the past of mega-selling girl group AKB48, is the major domestic selling point. Somewhere else it’s all the more a celebration title — that circuit, where Kurosawa’s works have been welcomed since his 1990s J-horror period (Cure, Pulse, Charisma), and all the more recently by means of any semblance of Tokyo Sonata (2008) and Daguerrotype (2016), will show Akiko Ashizawa’s widescreen visuals to most extreme favorable position.
Not this is at all a conventional homage to the spectacular landscapes of an off-the-beaten-track country. Beautiful recesses do accentuate the story, however, Kurosawa, a productive director who ranges openly crosswise over genres, appears to be unquenchably inquisitive about almost every aspect of Uzbekistan, a California-sized nation of long-standing vital geological significance. His hunger for unfamiliar, far-fetched places mirrors the protagonist Yoko’s affinity for solo meanderings, which frequently lead her into impossible, possibly unsafe corners of both urban and rural environments.
A perky pro on camera (most chivalrously during extended, nausea-inducing spins on a miniature-fairground ride) Yoko is in her private life a complex character quick to grow her passionate and geological limits. The film discovers extensive cleverness in the complexity between the two sides of her personality as she negotiates a precarious career junction. At two critical crossroads (around the halfway point and in the last minutes) everyone goes with her into the domain of fantasy. Kurosawa here easily switches gears into the movie-musical mode as Yoko gives full vent to her singing capacities — warbling the cheesily romantic number that gives the film’s title — against the backdrop first of a resplendent Soviet-period theater and later on a meadow amid mountainous terrain.
At each step of the film convincingly brings out different milieus with narrative style verisimilitude: it truly feels like Maeda/Yoko is lurching erratically starting with one genuine setting then onto the next, in a film expertly cast down the to the most minor of roles.
Especially great value in such manner is lumbering Yunusjon Asqarov, who radiates genuine screen presence in his transient appearances as a short-tempered fisherman on Lake Aydar, recruited by Yoko’s team as they look for proof of a most likely mythical fish. Uzbek superstar Adiz Rajabov benefits as much as possible from his sympathetic, prominent supporting role as super-competent interpreter Temur, however, the image stands or falls on the moderately inexperienced Maeda, who adapts prominently well to the demands of a tricky leading part.
A shaggy-appearing but carefully modulated affair, To The Ends of the Earth, gradually develops as a strange however convincing investigation of culture-conflicts and the potential for trans-global bridge-building: “We can’t know each other unless we talk,” a police chief informs Yoko after she bumblingly ends up in authority because of a chain of mishaps and misunderstandings. Authoritatively embraced international co-productions are usually stilted, self-consciously didactic affairs; the seasoned yet adventurous hands of Kurosawa, nonetheless, here yield unobtrusively vivid and hypnotizing results.
To the Ends of the Earth
Production companies: Tokyo Theatres Co., Loaded Films
Cast: Atsuko Maeda, Adiz Rajabov, Shota Sometani, Ryo Kase, Tokio Emoto
Director-screenwriter: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Producers: Eiko Mizuno-Gray, Toshikazu Nishigaya, Jason Gray
Cinematographer: Akiko Ashizawa
Production designer: Norifumi Ataka
Costume designer: Haruki Koketsu
Music: Yusuke Hayashi
Editor: Koichi Takahashi
Sales: Free Stone Productions, Tokyo
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande)