Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s To the Ends of the Earth is a masterful film—all the more so for being masterful in the most unassuming of ways. The film originated as a commission to commemorate diplomatic relations between Japan and Uzbekistan, and to that end, it incorporates a number of the landlocked nation's various tourist landmarks—the Navoi Theater, the Chorsu Bazaar, and Lake Aydar. And yet, watching this thrillingly protean film, one would be hard-pressed to dismiss this as a mere gun-for-hire effort. It is modest, to be sure—and perhaps destined to be received as a doggedly minor work. But in that sense, the film is also an auteurist work par excellence, one that demonstrates—perhaps more so than any of Kurosawa’s work this decade—the director’s casual control of disparate genres, tones, and moods.
No mere fish-out-of-water travelogue, To the Ends of the Earth is a full-fledged elaboration of the approach Kurosawa took in the hour-long Seventh Code (2013), his first collaboration with Atsuko Maeda, which likewise saw the former pop singer navigating the labyrinthine byways of a foreign city. Trading Seventh Code’s Vladivostok for Uzbekistan, Maeda stars as Yoko, the host of a variety TV show on an arduous location shoot spanning the cities of Tashkent and Samarkand, as well as the mountainous region of Zaamin. Separated from her lover back in Tokyo, and alienated from her all-male TV crew as well as the Uzbek locals, she wanders about the foreign landscape with a kind of strange, borderline reckless fascination. Yoko’s professionalism requires that she convey only unfailing enthusiasm for the camera, though with each subsequent cut, she seems to move only closer to desolation. A scene where Maeda/Yoko goes on a distressing amusement park ride no less than three times most viscerally illustrates Kurosawa’s self-interrogative impulses, present throughout.
Fear abounds, and though Kurosawa’s reputation as a horror director might be glimpsed in its suggestions of a ghost story—Yoko's absent lover is neither seen nor heard, and alluded to mainly in hushed texting scenes that recall Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper (2016)—the film eventually tips away from such a proposition. If Seventh Code proceeds from the template of a spy thriller—while doubling as a vehicle for a pop music video, no less—To the Ends of the Earth reconfigures the musical melodrama. Indeed, the film’s fulsome pleasures can be found in the way its judicious compositions express Yoko’s inner states, and its rhythms operate according to an emotional logic, culminating in two rapturous musical performances that are among the transportive scenes of the year.
I spoke with Kurosawa following the film’s North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it played in the Masters section. Special thanks to Momo Podolsky for her translation.
NOTEBOOK: This film is built around various locations in Uzbekistan. When you’re working on a film like this, in comparison to some of your recent films which are adaptations, how do you go about writing the script?
KIYOSHI KUROSAWA: To a certain extent, I did some research about Uzbekistan, but prior to the shooting, I didn’t go to Uzbekistan and look for the details. If I really wanted to learn about Uzbekistan in detail, I’d have to do it for years. I’d have to spend time living there and learning the language. But that was not my aim for this particular film. My aim was not to make something particular to Uzbekistan, but something that could happen anywhere, to anybody—myself included—somebody who doesn’t know anything about the country that she or he goes into, and struggles mightily at small clashes between cultures. That was my aim for this, which is why I didn’t go do research beforehand on location.
NOTEBOOK: What about something like the scene at the fun park ride, which is fascinating to watch. What stage does that come into the script?
KUROSAWA: I imagined or I had guessed that there would be some kind of carnival ride like the one in the film, that you wouldn’t see in Japan, but that would be a little bit dangerous and rough. So I had scripted that not in fine detail, but on the assumption that there would be something like that on site. Even though I had assumed that, it was actually not that easy to find the perfect ride. But it turns out that there was one in an amusement park in the middle of Tashkent, and then I thought: that’s the one.
NOTEBOOK: When you’re shooting a particular building or location, how are you thinking about the space you’re in? For example, there’s the scene at the Navoi Theater with the repeated shots through the hallways. When you look at this space, do you conceive of the scene in your head when you shoot it? What’s that process like?
KUROSAWA: Actually, I would say that it’s partly imagining it in my head, and partly putting it together in the editing. So for example the Navoi Theater scene, all that was written in the script was one sentence: “Going into the Navoi Theater.” Until I got there on site, I couldn’t imagine what it was going to look like. I had no preconceived ideas of what I was going to do there. But with those six chambers of the Navoi Theater, I had decided to shoot each room exactly the same way, as the character goes through each one. It was not a very difficult process overall, but the editing had something to do with the cumulative effect. If I had used all the footage six times, it would have been repetitive. What I ended up getting was the main character going through those six rooms in a more mysterious way. A big part of the fantastical, mysterious effect that I’m getting was also the sound that you hear—the singing voice. In each room, the voice becomes a bit more clear, and so you could tell that she’s going somewhere the voice is coming from.
NOTEBOOK: It’s definitely a memorable scene aurally and visually. There’s a particularly impressive sequence of shots before she goes into the theater: the wide shot of the fountain, then a medium shot of Atsuko Maeda behind a curtain of water, and then an extreme close-up of her putting her hair over her ear, which is when you first hear the singing. Part of the impact, of course, comes from the nature of the compositions. Could you talk about your choice to shoot this movie in CinemaScope? Your first movie to use this aspect ratio was Journey to the Shore and since then you’ve done it more and more.
KUROSAWA: First of all, thank you for watching things meticulously, in such detail. My reason for choosing the CinemaScope ratio for Journey to the Shore was not based on any deep thinking. It wasn’t something I dwelled on or thought very arduously about; it was just that I’d like to continue filming in CinemaScope for a few of my works. In the past, my belief was that the best way to shoot film was Vista[Vision] size. Why? That’s because it allows you to see two people on the screen either in a car or sitting side by side, and you can see them perfectly and have a sense of perspective of something that’s behind or to the fore. That’s what I thought was the best aspect ratio. The Vista size was, for me, representative of filmmaking. In the old days, family televisions were standard size, but as you know now TV has become Vista size. So when you look at a film being played on TV, the size now fits. It was shocking to me when the television screen became that Vista size and that there was no difference between film and TV in that regard. So my conundrum was: What is the best way to make film more special? Should I go back to the older standard sizes? But now I’m at the stage where I’d like to practice a little more—experiment a little more in CinemaScope, which is wider than Vista.
NOTEBOOK: One thing that struck me about the movie is that it has a lot of horror elements: ghostly effects, mysterious turns, and the like. And part of your reputation, based on Pulse and Cure, is as a horror director. But this movie has a more emotional logic, moving along with Atsuko Maeda’s lead character as in a musical or melodrama. Part of what brought up this line of thought was a recent New York retrospective of Vincente Minnelli widescreen movies. Were you thinking of this movie as a musical or melodrama?
KUROSAWA: That’s a very interesting insight. First of all, I’d like to say that it wasn’t my intent to really make a musical film. And it’s actually very difficult to define what a musical is. In Hollywood at least, the music starts, the actors come, then they sing, and it’s a performance—they’re all on the stage, and everybody’s dancing. It’s a spectacle. It’s got an entertainment aspect about it. That’s how I would define a musical. Whereas in my film, it’s not at that level. I’m not really going there. There’s really just the main character singing. So you won’t suddenly see her dancing and see other people dancing around her. Having said that, what you see in the last scene is an idea that I struggled with, but had decided that I would absolutely do. At the end, the main character is there, and the introductory musical accompaniment starts, and then she starts singing along with it. And that’s one thing that you don’t see normally in a film, where often only the spectator hears the background music, while the characters don’t. The significance of that is the bizarre or strange phenomenon where the main character is hearing the accompaniment. And so it’s a bit like a stage performance. And I really loved that part of it in the film. And so you could say that that’s me going one step towards the musical.
It’s true that I’m known as a horror genre director, especially in Toronto where my films that are screened are horror like Cure, Pulse, and Daguerrotype. But it’s not like I’m only making that kind of film. It’s not like in my films there’s always some ghost appearing. So in this film, I’m keeping my distance from that genre.
NOTEBOOK: This is a rather interior movie—about the emotional journey of this lead character, who is separated from her lover who we never see or even hear. And of course there are themes of alienation and displacement, so a lot of the shots seem to externalize her headspace. Was that part of your thought process when composing and putting these shots together?
KUROSAWA: I’d like to say that it’s really nice of you to have watched the film that way—if you thought you could see what’s going on in her internal headspace. If the spectators could be in sync with her, with what she’s experiencing, that would be really great. But in real terms, I don’t think it’s quite possible for a film to completely get into someone’s internal headspace. The best you can do is depict their relationship to their external environment. One of my aims was to make sure that the main character was in pretty much every shot. And so what I tried to do if you look at all the sequences is that you will obviously in scenes where you see her face, you see her face, but even if it’s about two people speaking completely unrelated to her, you will see her back. Or if she’s looking at something, you look through her. In that way I tried to have her in every scene, every shot.
NOTEBOOK: Another major part of the movie is how it depicts the act of filming and shooting a primarily physical experience. In Seventh Code, which seems like a precursor to this film, you have Atsuko Maeda running around Vladivostok, and here you have her again doing a lot of physical things: climbing a mountain, going on a fun park ride... How important was this to your conception of the film?
KUROSAWA: It was based on my real life experience. Shooting is a very physical experience, as you say, for both the person shooting and the person being shot. Often, the end result is just someone being somewhere. But behind that, the work that goes around it to get to that particular shot, is not usually seen. The crew is doing all kinds of physical stuff. In this film, you see the actors going into the water. The result is almost as if none of that had happened and it’s just there. Another thing is, as you saw in Seventh Code, Atsuko Maeda is very capable of physical stuff. She’s a great actress. She’s got wonderful acting abilities. But when she does physical things like running down a slope and that kind of stuff, it makes her uniqueness even more emphasized.
NOTEBOOK: More generally, could you talk about your relationship to commissioned works? As I understand it, this film was a commission on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Uzbekistan. And you do a lot of TV work as well, such as with Penance.
KUROSAWA: Most of my works have been commissioned, so in that sense I probably would define myself not so much as an artist, but as an artisan—while also taking great pride in that fact. Filmmaking isn’t something you do on your own. You have many people doing creative work. You have the crew, the actors, and everybody pitches in with ideas. My job as a director is to put it all together. The producer is an important part of the team. If the producer brings me a story: “What about this?” Then it becomes a commission on the part of the producer—that’s an important element of my filmmaking. So for me having something commissioned is something I can’t do without.
NOTEBOOK: Were there any restrictions on what you could or could not shoot for this film? And did they ask you to shoot specific things, such as the Navoi Theater?
KUROSAWA: There was a restriction, but a very light one. As you figured, they asked me to shoot the Navoi Theater, but there wasn’t any restriction on how or how much. It’s a tourist attraction, so they just wanted it to be incorporated in the film.
NOTEBOOK: What’s so unique about the film as a whole, or that scene in particular, is how you make this kind of travel film your own. It’s hard to think of another director who would approach this commissioned project in the way you do it here.
KUROSAWA: I’m really glad that you felt that way. That’s why I consider myself an artisan—I was asked to shoot the Navoi Theater and so I just did my best to make a lasting impression and work towards that.