With Journey to the Shore Kiyoshi Kurosawa returned to the Cannes and the Un Certain Regard section for the first time since 2008's Tokyo Sonata, a film that helped bridge a connection to a normal art house crowd for this director too often incorrectly pegged either as some kind of arty J-Horror filmmaker or, even worse, someone who was once good at making such films. Unsurprisingly, after the wacko minimalist version of Inception (with CGI dinosaur), Real, and a featurette comedy thriller shot in Vladivostok, the director returns to Cannes with a movie that among all his many films made for cinema and television, most closely resembles Tokyo Sonata.
Its unfortunately bland English title notwithstanding, Journey to the Shore is one of the few unquantifiable movies that premiered on the Croisette, a truly odd and quite lovely ghost story. The premise is ripe for a sentimental American remake: the missing, presumed dead husband (Tadanobu Asano) of young piano teacher Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) appears one night in her apartment, tells her he killed himself after finding out he was terribly ill and has returned because he has things he needs to do. Quickly getting used to the idea of her husband re-materialized in both spirit and body, Mizuki and he travel around the countryside spending time living with his old acquaintances, each of whom is haunted by someone—or are themselves dead and haunting. This episodic structure recalls Kurosawa's last excellent work, the miniseries Penance, and as in that film he here displays a incredibly subtly tonal range, segueing almost imperceptibly from intonations of melancholy art house to horror film, comedy, low key rural drama, and sentimental romance. The overall sensibility is sweetly unsettling, a fitting result for this rare heir to Georges Franju (Eyes without a Face), especially during the eerily climatic resolution to each of the hauntings.
Kurosawa's gift for imbuing off-screen space with uncanny danger is sublimely used here, where his edits can make people disappear and re-appear in an instant—an old-school technique that is always fresh in his films—creating a world where the existence of people is supremely precarious. Like the wife, we never know when the husband may disappear, when she may wake up and find him gone, it was all a dream or somehow obeying a metaphysics obscure to the living. Traveling around the countryside, the film extends this idea further, that each family, each person is potentially being haunted for some past wrong. Shooting in CinemaScope for the first time ever, Kurosawa uses this additional wideness to stretch his lateral spatial arrangements, segmenting people away from each other so as to underscore that the distance between individuals is perhaps not just physical but moral, temporal, spiritual and metaphysical.
Yet the film is not consistently in the mode of style that is so striking of Kurosawa's signatures, those maze-like, often dilapidated interiors, the intrusion of natural elements like wind, light and plants from the outside world into supposedly safe, human spaces, and his beautifully fluid ghost tricks like slow-creep camera tracks, sudden reverse jump cuts, and so on. These are all in Journey to the Shore, but in equal measure to an emotional core found in Eri Fukatsu's trip. For a director known from his dramatic restraint to the point of cerebral distance, the range of emotions evoked by Fukatu, the unusual amount of conventional close-ups and exchanges, and a soundtrack that mixes some terrific Bernard Herrmann-style motifs with broadly sentimental orchestration push the film very close to becoming a straightforward, mushy tale of overcoming loss through vague metaphysics. Yet this is what opens the film up and allows it to fluidly shift in tones, unified by a beige, aged look and a deliberate tempo that matches the piano playing style of Fukatsu. "It should be joyous," a woman complains about her measured piano technique, and no doubt many will wish the same from Journey to the Shore, but slowing his movie down allows Kurosawa to draw out the strange, the lovely, and the unresolved the lays behind every one.
After the premiere of his film in Cannes, I was able to participate in a roundtable conversation with the director whom I last interviewed in 2008 about Tokyo Sonata.
QUESTION: Where did this idea come from, to mix a love story with the horror genre?
KIYOSHI KUROSAWA: As you may know, it’s actually an adaptation, so I was inspired greatly by the novel by Kazumi Yumoto. What’s unique about the novel, there’s two elements especially, first one is that a dead person comes back to the living, a premise we’ve seen before. What’s interesting is that we see many stories about trying to find out how he was living while he was alive. After he dies, he perceives, together with his wife, what their life was, how he was living his life. He does this as a dead man—that was very unique. The other element was that once the journey begins the couple visit different places and encounter dead people who are present in the world of the living. So they meet more dead people. These two aspects were very interesting. I thought it was going to be a tough project to adapt, but that’s why I wanted to do it, and that’s why I wrote the screenplay.
QUESTION: Is this journey they take an exploration by the wife of the history of her husband had before she met him, that everyone has a life before they meet someone else?
KUROSAWA: As a flow, yes, I considered that as well, but what she finds out also is what death is. At the very end, she meets dead people, not just her husband but other dead people as well, and she learns what death is. And that concept is what I was attracted to the most.
QUESTION: How do you view this journey they take? Is it only the wife's journey?
KUROSAWA: Probably it’s the journey of the couple, but honestly speaking I had never shot a road movie. The locations change within the story, but Japan is a small country so from a foreigner’s point of view it would be difficult to you to ascertain how far away one location is from another; if it were an American film you could have maybe the West coast, the desert, the East coast, but that’s not possible to shoot in Japan. So I’m not quite sure myself if it’s a road movie, in that sense, but the locations certainly change and the people they meet change and that’s a very concrete part of their journey together. The one thing which was different that was not in the source material was in the latter half, where the wife Mizuki returns to Tokyo, and she then goes back to the countryside to resume her journey. You see her separate ways from her husband, and that is a story development that I added to the novel.
QUESTION: Do you have any religious background? What do you believe about the afterlife?
KUROSAWA: As a typical Japanese—I think—we don’t believe in one particular religion. I won’t say, though, I’m an atheist. I’m not as confident to say I’m an atheist. You probably know that we have Buddhism, Christianity, we have Shintoism; there are many religions we have that are vaguely intertwined in Japan. We don’t quite follow it or have faith in it per se, we’re not religious, but it kind of exists all together in our lives. I don’t have one particular religion, but I’m not particularly unreligious either. In regards to the afterlife, honestly speaking what happens to us after we die, of course it’s absolutely impossible for us to imagine what’s going to happen after death. However, I think that there is something that is connected to our lives, something that continues on that’s connected to our lives. That there’s only void, emptiness, after that moment of death? Certainly there is a possibility that will happen, but I think that’s a very simplistic and violent way to consider the afterworld. There are many possibilities, anything can happen. Something probably changes and something remains as a universal state and continues on. That’s what I imagine it to be.
QUESTION: Do you see films such as Journey to the Shore and others you’ve made that have dealt with metaphysics and the supernatural as ways for your to imaginatively explore the way those "possibilities" can happen?
KUROSAWA: When we start on the subject of death it’s intriguing but you can never reach a concrete answer, and it also becomes very complicated. Maybe it’s better explored in text, but making a film with regards to death is a very complicated task. Not just me, but many auteurs do it in a very simple way. We look for a very simple method for making a film about death. And that is—and it might sound idiotic—to have a living actor play a dead character. You might think this very simple, but it is the most powerful and effective way to explore that theme. Having said that, it’s not that we reach an ultimate answer as to what death is, but I think even if we can’t find an answer, there is worth in making films that question. You question, that’s why you make films. We don’t understand, it’s thought provoking. There is worth in films being made where it questions, not providing answers.
QUESTION: I believe this is your first film shot in CinemaScope? I was wondering about your choice of that aspect ratio and your challenges shooting in it.
KUROSAWA: That’s a good question! Honestly speaking, it’s the first time I’ve shot a truly CinemaScope film. Up until now, in Japan we have what we call “Vista,” it’s a little smaller, 1.85. That’s my preferred size and I always believed that to be the perfect cinema size, so it was important to me that I shoot in that format. I have tried to express my feelings through it in the past. Very sadly, that became the television size, TV adopted that size for broadcasting. In recent years, I’ve still been obsessing over Vista, but then I’d think, “but oh, it’s TV now!” So, for the very first time, I made this resolve: I’m not going to shoot in TV-size. That was the only intention driving me to choose CinemaScope for the first time. I was very scared. But I stopped fretting over it, I didn’t think too much about the size, I just thought, “this is not television.” And this was my new beginning. I think, I hope, to make a couple of films in CinemaScope until I learn more about this aspect ratio. I hope Journey to the Shore works as a CinemaScope film. There might be aspects to be sure, expressions that might not be perfectly suited to that ratio—yet. But I’m learning. These are the times, I’m going with the flow.
QUESTION: Speaking of television, two years ago you made Penance for TV. Is this a trend in Japan, that movie directors will go to a television production?
KUROSAWA: It’s not a trend because it always existed, very different from what’s happening in the States. The reason is very simple, we don’t have enough jobs solely directing movies, so we had to direct TV as well. There are many directors who do both. However, we’re talking about aspect ratio and TV has adopted the size of the movies, and in some cases what you shot for TV is now sometimes shown in cinemas. And that is the recent thing in our country. But it’s still very rare that something that’s made for TV is shown on the big screen, so in that sense Penance is a very odd case. In Japan it was solely for television, but in other countries it was shown on the big screen. I think we will see more of that in Japan as well. But still, it’s not that many.
QUESTION: One scene I found particularly beautiful was when the young dead girl comes back to visit her sister and play piano. I was wondering if you could talk about your directorial process in a scene like that. Are you composing the images and deciding on the cuts while writing the screenplay or while on the set? How do you determine the arrangement of space in a scene like that?
KUROSAWA: When I’m writing I try not to think of any visuals. I mean, it’s fun to do that, to try to envision the film while writing, but I don’t think it’s a good thing when you’re writing a screenplay. It should be words, it should be text only. The moment for me to start thinking of the visuals is when I’m on a location scout. I have my text that I’ve written, I look at the location and if I can see that scene unfolding visually, that’s the location. Is the piano going to be here? Or maybe the camera is going to be shooting from here? And that composition, or that actual situation, where we’re actually filming, if I can imagine it happening there—I choose the location. That’s how it begins. The structure or the larger elements of the composition start to show themselves. What’s interesting is what I determine at that moment is just the structure, but I still don’t know what the exact visuals will be. Of course, the cinematographer is the one that helps me determine that. What I choose is, “okay: this room. I think the piano will be around here, the camera’s going to shoot from here.” That’s all. How it actually is going to end up visually is usually determined my director of photography, and then I look at what he shoots and say “oh, wow, that’s surprisingly,” or sometimes it’s exactly as I had imagined. That’s how I tend to work.
QUESTION: Is this the same with the editing? For me, watching your films the editing reminds me of that of someone like John Ford, where there’s no other way you could edit it, there’s no extra footage. It has to be this, what you shot, in this order, very precise.
KUROSAWA: Oh my god, you just mentioned John Ford, that’s going to make it difficult for me to answer your question! But that’s what I’m aiming to do. Of course, it’s not easy. When I’m shooting I am thinking of the editing, the only way that it can be edited. I try not to shoot anything that I’m not going to use, or that’s going to be of excess. But of course there’s the budget, the schedule is very tight. That’s one of the practical reasons I do that. But I do strive to only shoot what I need. It’s my ideal: to shoot only what I’m going to edit.
QUESTION: Can you talk about the music score? Some of it is very calm and some very tense.
KUROSAWA: It’s something that I actually consciously did with the score. In contemporary Japanese cinema if you have a film like this the score is subtle and used very sparingly so that it won’t register too much. It’s very reserved, especially for this type of film. And so I decided not to do that, I didn’t like that. It’s a journey and, on the other hand, it’s a man and a woman, married, it’s a flowing, floating story of love as well. For music, I was thinking of the 1950s American melodramas like those directed by Douglas Sirk, so that’s what I told the composer Yoshihide Ôtomo: look at Douglas Sirk’s work, I want melodrama, this is the type of music. Sirk mentioned how melodrama is the "melo" and the "drama," which means that when you hear that music, the visuals and performances are enhanced very clearly, it tells you what the beats are, and what the themes are, and that, according to Sirk, is what melodrama is. I actually didn’t use a lot of music in the film, but once you hear it, the music also expresses a certain drama, and I was very conscious of that.
QUESTION: Since we’re talking about other filmmakers, and I know you are a big cinephile, where there specific films you were thinking about or watching for this Journey to the Shore?
KUROSAWA: Not really. I did mention melodrama, but I don’t think this movie is a particular genre, so because of that aspect I didn’t look at anything in particular. Except in terms of the musical elements, where I did look at Douglas Sirk.
QUESTION: I also heard some Bernard Herrmann in the score.
KUROSAWA: [laughs] Depending on the scene, yeah. Vertigo….esque?
QUESTION: Your films often talk about people and how they face their regrets, how they have to fix them.
KUROSAWA: Hmm, regret. I don’t think that for me that’s a big theme. For my characters, certainly there are things in the past but they somehow find ways to overcome it, to move forward to the future. I think that can be said of this film, as well. Those are the type of characters I want to portray in my film. But in order to face the future, look forward into the future, possibly one must overcome regret in life—to move forward.