There are many ways to process “To the Ends of the Earth,” easily one of the most artful and enjoyable films of 2020, which sadly is going under the radar in the large sea of film content and online streaming platforms as it’s being dumped right in December in virtual theater screenings during the big award season films. Those who don’t seek out “To the Ends of the Earth” will be missing out, as “To the Ends of the Earth” is every bit as a cinematic treasure as Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” and some of the other high profile acclaimed films of the year like “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Mank,” “”Minari,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” “On the Rocks,” and “Sound of Metal” to name just a few. If anything, “To the Ends of the Earth” exceeds them and is even more memorable, which is quite telling considering each of those films are outstanding and fully realized works of art. Hopefully, this Japanese foreign language film “To the Ends of the Earth” finds the praise and an audience that it rightfully deserves because no other film brought me as much great joy and pleasure this year as this one did. A highly engrossing and exuberant film from beginning to end, “To the Ends of the Earth” is a film that holds many endearing qualities as it asks many complex questions about the human experience and our world.
As a unique piece to acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa large filmography, whose work ranges from horror, science fiction, to drama. Best known for his 2001 Japanese horror film “Pulse”–which was later turned into a disastrous Hollywood remake in 2006–Kurosawa’s latest addition is one of his most remarkable films yet, and easily one of the most fascinating films of the year. Kurosawa proves to be a resonant visionary and a superb craftsman, bringing a truly cathartic and human vision to his latest framework.
“To the Ends of the Earth,” which benefits from its sweeping title, was also penned by Kurosawa. It’s a compassionate, anxiety-inducing, and exuberant chronicle of geographical dislocation. Kurosawa has made a deeply engaging film, in which the lead female character delivers one of the most endearing and vulnerable performances of the year. The performance by young Japanese actress Atsuko Maeda is delivered with a wide range of nuances that is one of the most emotive performances of the year. Yes, it is every bit as great as Frances McDormand in “Nomadland” and Viola Davis’s stylized performance in “Ma Rainy’s Black Bottom” In many ways “To the Ends of the Earth,” is a truly singular work, one that holds some similarities between Sofia Coppola’s 2003 masterpiece “Lost in Translation” and Todd Haynes 1995 treasure “Safe” with themes about dislocation and enduring anxiety with new settings and landscapes. Not since “Lost in Translation” has a film about geographical dislocation been so affecting, compassionate, and ravishing to watch.
The film is set in Uzbekistan, which ends up becoming a love letter of redemption and overcoming fears of how humans hold many preconceived notions about countries and cultures they aren’t accustomed to. Kurosawa has explored a wide range of ideas and themes in his films before about the fears of the unknown including technology, environmental and ecological volatility with his genre driven films.
With “To the Ends of the Earth,” this film represents a departure from horror and sci-fi, while he has directed some dramas before, including the 2008 family drama “Tokyo Sonata,” Kurosawa captures the same sensibilities that he is celebrated for. While far from being a horror film, “To the Ends of the Earth” still delivers anxiety, dread, and fear that prowls beneath the surface of our everyday lives.
Thematically, “To the Ends of the Earth,” could easily be described as a character-driven drama about tourism and visiting an unfamiliar country, and there are themes about disorientation and even alienation in an ever-growing globalized world. Not only does Kurosawa beautifully render the vivid anxieties and psychology of being in a foreign country, but he also captures the preconceived fears and prejudices many of us hold about cultures that are different than our own. Kurosawa’s vision also goes way beyond the issue of Arabic-Japanese culture clash, it also works as a delicate and profound character study in which a precarious, gorgeous young woman, a Japanese TV reporter (Atsuko Maeda) begins her own soul-searching and realizations in overcoming her own fears, insecurities, and perhaps even traumas.
The film opens up with no subtitles, as we hear an Arabic language being spoken. This instantly draws the viewer with confusion and disorientation as Yoko catches a motorcycle ride to a local beach where she meets her small Japanese camera crew. The crew is there reporting on the nation of Uzbekistan and they grow more impatient as they feel they haven’t captured enough compelling material. What could have easily been just a retread of “Lost in Translation,” Kurosawa not only matches Coppola with his curiosity to a culture and his main character, but he also dives even deeper in understanding society and sociologically biases of the unknown.
As Yoko’s travel with her camera crew, she is very conscientious and driven for her work. While reporting when the camera is on her, she always brings great enthusiasm and vigor to her reporting There is a comical scene where she even convinces herself and the audience that the crunchy, overcooked rice is tasty. There is an even sadder scene where goes on an amusement park ride that leads to her getting sick, the scene starts off comical but ends with worry as she gets sick after endlessly going on the ride take after take. Her director, Yoshoiko (Shota Sometani, camera operator, Iwao (Ryo Rase) appreciates her endeavors and even pushes her to do more takes so they can get different camera angles of the ride. Only for Yoko to persuade the audience once again that it was a joyful and wild ride. It’s also a very profound scene about the way gender is perceived by other cultures as well. As Yoko goes on the ride, this alarms the amusement park owner who cautions against her from riding on it as he states “She is just a child, she can die” as he assumes she is underage and he refers to her as “That child” even after Yoshoiko explains to him she is an adult. Kurosawa subtly shows how Uzbeks perceive women.
The film ends up becoming even more layered about culture clash, as Kurosawa ends up diving deeper into Yoko’s own character depth. After work, Yoko travels out on her own to explore the landscapes she is traveling in. She holds a curiosity for her new surroundings, but is extremely cautious. She is especially cautious towards men, which leads to a psychological question if Yoko holds some trauma towards strangers and men? Did something possibly happen to her to become so detached and distant? Whenever she walks past a group of guys, she instantly runs away in fear. She also finds herself getting arrested after she runs away from some police officials after inquiring about what she is shooting after she records footage in her mini-dv camera at a crowded marketplace once she gets separated from her camera crew.
What makes these scenes so suffocating and anxiety-inducing to Yoko’s world is just how Kurosawa cleverly decides not to subtitle the Uzbek dialogue throughout Yoko’s advantageous journey. However, Kurosawa heightens Yoko’s psychology even more with his impeccable visual style that consists of dramatic lighting, wide lens shots with space that express her alienation, and numerous amount of silences as Kurosawa’s camera just observes as we observe Yoko’s emotional turmoil on foreign soil, as well as she begins to contemplate her own life as she begins to question why she’s even a reporter when she has a yearning of becoming a singer.
Another outstanding sequence in the film involves Yoko drifting away in a building, as the camera tracks behind her in a meticulously framed and beautifully moving tracking shot, Yoko hears from a distance a lady singing. She enters a room to find an enchanting theater where sits down in the concert hall which leads to her epiphany of wanting something more in her life. It’s a transported and transfixing scene that elevates the material even more as Kurosawa renders with a stylized fantasy scene of Yoko performing her own beautiful Japanese rendition of Edith Piaf’s “Hymme a l’amour”. Her fantasy is disrupted once a male Uzbek security officer startles her as she panics and runs away. Which Kuorsawa emphasizes again her inner anxieties and torments that she is enduring.
Yoko returns to her hotel room, and you begin to question what is reality or dream. It is clarified later once Temur (Adiz), the crew’s translator begins talking about the Navoi theater, in which he reveals’ that the theater was built by Japanese POWs during World War II, in which he explains the POWS were coerced into building six waiting rooms representing the different regions of Uzbekistan, which is quite extraordinary that men who were enemy combatants ended up becoming collaborates as they built something so colossal, as Yoko processes what she heard in a meticulous and photogenic Bergmanesque style close-up.
Kurosawa concentrates on Yoko’s character arc and depth, in contrast to characters and milieus, he allows each scene the time to unravel to the fullest. One tender moment involves Yoko coming up with the idea of freeing a caged goat, which she convinces the owner of the goat to set it free in the desert so she can allow the camera crew to cover the goat’s liberation. It serves as a beautiful metaphor for Yoko’s own emancipation for her own apprehensions of the world. The third act has some beautifully rendered moments of Yoko coming to terms with accepting the unknown that involves beautifully scripted and acted scenes with her being questioned at a police station. A distressing moment comes when Yoko’s boyfriend in Tokyo who’s life could be in danger after a nuclear plant explodes as it’s revealed earlier in the film that works near the facilities.
Here is a profound character study and all around an extraordinary piece of cinema, the kind of film that lingers deep in your heart and soul well after the credits. All around “To the Ends of the Earth” is a remarkable character driven film about a confused woman, who is navigating her own life and trying to grapple with her own world as she is currently trapped inside a foreign one. There is great hope to be found, in Kurosawa’s vision, the character of Yoko may be talented and has a loving boyfriend back in Tokyo, but her real epiphany begins that this is all a diversion against the real world, and how we must overcome our fears if we want a have more tolerable and comprehensive world.