To the Ends of the Earth
It doesn’t help that Yoko (former J-pop idol Atsuko Maeda), who is animated in her job as a travelogue reporter but otherwise quiet and reserved, is traveling through Uzbekistan with an all male crew who make few overtures to mingle. Things aren’t going particularly well and Yoko misses her Tokyo firefighter boyfriend, but when she stumbles upon an operatic rehearsal in a Tashkent theater, she comes to a startling realization about herself in “To the Ends of the Earth.”
Laura's Review: B+
If you are primarily familiar with the work of director Kiyoshi Kurosawa in the horror genre (“Pulse,” “Creepy”), this one will be a surprise. This lovely character study of a young woman finding herself while lost in a foreign land was commissioned to mark the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Uzbekistan and Kurosawa’s found a beautiful way to do it.
Everywhere she goes, Yoko’s gender appears to work against her. We first meet her filming a segment on Uzbekistan’s largest lake, Adyar, a manmade one which now contains particularly large fish. Director Yoshioka (Shôta Sometani) wants her in waders out in the water and seems unconcerned about her comfort while he figures out his shot. Yoko’s line reading is perfect, but when she gets in a boat with an Uzbekistani fisherman, none of the nets she pulls up contains a fish and he blames her gender for their bad luck. The next day, she sets out on her own, taking a bus to the local bazaar, but is intimidated by groups of men standing in alleys, gets lost, and returns to her hotel room with a suspect looking takeout meal from a convenience store. Check-ins with her boyfriend back home cheer her up, but are brief due to their expense.
A segment shot on an amusement park ride is torturous, cameraman Iwao (Ryo Kase, "Letters from Iwo Jima"), who joins her for the third take Yoshioka demands, declaring it ‘too intense.’ With little usable footage, the group discusses options, finally agreeing to Yoko’s idea to set a goat she’d found penned up alone in an alley free, another misadventure, but one which circles back during the film’s finale in a most delightful way. It is in their next stop, the capital city of Tashkent, that Yoko will have her two most dramatic adventures.
Kurosawa’s film is essentially split in two parts, the first charting Yoko’s untethered loneliness, the second finding her making connections and realizations. Temur (Adiz Rajabov), their Uzbekistani translator, is the first to make an overture in their hotel lobby, drawing the young woman out with kind curiosity, fascinated by her description of a firefighter who works at sea, his country being landlocked. Later it will be Iwao who encourages her to follow her dreams by sharing his own unlikely path to the job he loves. It is her own adventurous spirit which, hearing a beautiful voice, leads her into the Navoi Theater, one which she later discovers was built by Japanese POWs from Temur who holds them in high esteem for what they accomplished and how.
Atsuko Maeda, present in every scene, makes Yoko’s journey memorable, her internal discovery memorably captured by Kurosawa in a scene which evokes “The Sound of Music.” And like those POWs, Yoko leaves her mark, a suggestion by that ornery fisherman when a second search for those fish comes up blank producing a most welcome new legend.
For information about virtual screenings of "To the Ends of the Earth," click here.