September 4, 2023    ArtsJapaneseReview

Japanese Film Review: “To the Ends of the Earth”

Traveling has a mysterious effect of perspective shifting; you go home with the courage to try something new or renewed enthusiasm to continue your current path. This is especially true if you must interact with the locals under real-life circumstances.

In Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s To the Ends of the Earth, a Japanese TV crew is shooting a travel show in Uzbekistan. We don’t realize until the middle of the film that each member is doubting their career direction. Frustrated that nothing is going according to plan, the director loses confidence and thinks it will end his career. The cameraman reveals that he originally wanted to make documentary films. The travel show host, Yoko, has always wanted to be a singer and feels she has deviated too far from that path. Ironically, the only person who has realized his career objective is the Uzbek guide/interpreter.

The first half of the film is confounding because we don’t understand Yoko’s strange behavior. She seems almost psychotic. After work, she does not spend time with the crew. Instead, she takes off alone into shady places. If anyone tries to speak to her, she runs away scared, yet she deliberately exposes herself to danger. She does not walk; she is constantly running. It is not clear if she is running towards or away from something.

In one excursion, she relies on a booklet to figure out how to take a bus to a bazaar. She does not speak the local language, so she relies on a few English words to get around. After all the trouble of getting there, she doesn’t buy anything from the market; she walks into a small store and grabs some random items. Walking alone in a dark, desolate area, she runs into a goat in captivity. She runs back to the bus and almost misses it. By the time she gets back to the hotel, it’s late. She takes a bite out of the packaged food she bought but doesn’t like it, so she eats the food someone had given her during the shoot.

When the crew runs out of ideas for what to shoot, she suggests rescuing the goat she saw last night. It’s a nonsensical idea for a travel show, but the crew goes along with it, perhaps because they all share the feeling of being stuck in their careers.

In another baffling excursion, she hears a singing voice coming from a majestic building. As if hypnotized, she enters the empty building and finds a woman practicing. We then watch an imaginary scene of Yoko singing Édith Piaf’s Hymne A L’Amour, which is the clue we needed for her strange behavior.

The next day, she discloses to the cameraman at the breakfast table that she will audition for a musical once she returns home, which will determine the rest of her life. The difference between being a television host and a singer, she explains, is that the latter must have an emotion that bursts out from the bottom of her heart. The song she must sing for the audition is Hymne A L’Amour, and the cameraman asks her to sing, but she says she doesn’t have that required emotion.

If you pay attention to the lyrics, her seemingly irrational behavior makes sense. It says the blue sky can collapse. The ground can cave in. It doesn’t matter as long as you love me. She’ll go to the end of the world. We are reminded of the title of the film, To the Ends of the Earth. A literal translation of the original Japanese title is “The end of traveling, the beginning of the world.” Note that what ends is not the world/earth but traveling. The world begins from there.

Yoko is forcing herself to go to the end of the world so she can understand the emotion required to sing Hymne A L’Amour. It also explains why she was willing to take on torturous tasks like eating uncooked rice and enduring an amusement park ride three times that caused her to puke. Hymne A L’Amour is about the willingness to do anything for love. And, she ultimately succeeds in understanding that feeling. Her singing in the theater was imaginary; at the end, she sings for real against a backdrop that reminds us of the famous scene from The Sound of Music.

To the Ends of the Earth is a psychological mystery that draws the audience in with baffling behavior and gradually fills you in on what is going on inside. In this sense, it’s not a departure from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s other films, but unfortunately, it didn’t translate well for the Western audience. Being unfamiliar with both Japanese and Uzbek cultures, I believe Yoko’s behavior did not appear bizarre or mysterious. English film reviews treated it as an understandable difficulty in a foreign culture, perhaps assuming that it’s not strange for Japanese people to behave that way in unfamiliar environments. Hopefully, knowing this may help some Western viewers appreciate the film better.