▶︎ To the Ends of the Earth is available on Mubi.
Hasumi Shigehiko has been a tireless champion of his former students who are now active directors, but even Professor Hasumi might have trouble validating Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s feeble attempt to fulfil the commission to celebrate 25 years of diplomatic relations between Japan and Uzbekistan and 70 years since the crafting of interior designs for Tashkent’s Navoi Theatre by Japanese PoWs. Kurosawa tries to do it with a story about the misadventures of a TV crew shooting the kind of vacuous ‘local colour’ report that crops up all the time on magazine shows in Japan.
Japanese who venture abroad are less likely to cling together in groups than the Chinese, but they’re often famously clueless about other cultures’ manners and mores – not to mention their histories and politics – which obviously reflects poorly on Japan’s media and the school curriculum. The film Kurosawa has written and directed tries to pay its dues to Uzbekistan’s ‘difference’, showing the misunderstandings which follow the presenter-heroine’s initial decision to dress like a teenager and giving pointed comments on Japanese ignorance to a couple of Uzbek bit-players. But the result is not much less vacuous than the TV segments it satirises.
The best modern example of the Japanese-fish-out-of-water movie remains Miike Takashi’s The Bird People in China (Chugoku no Chojin, 1998), which sidesteps both cultural and conceptual pitfalls by plonking two contrasted adult males into a Yunnan village with a psychedelic, invented mythology involving human flight. Kurosawa comes up with nothing better than sentimental nonsense about a naïve young presenter who dreams of becoming a singer and finds her inner Julie Andrews atop an Uzbek mountain. (The title comes from the lyrics of the equally sentimental ballad she sings there, Marguerite Monnot’s Hymne de l‘amour, having earlier dreamed that she performed it on the stage of the Navoi Theatre.)
Child-woman fantasies aside, Kurosawa does get some mileage out of Uzbek ‘primitivism’: a fisherman who refuses to take a female out on his boat, a cook who can’t prepare the fried-rice dish plov because she’s run out of firewood. His satire is mostly toothless, though he succeeds in nailing the character of the TV director who despises both his presenter and his target audience.
It’s quite hard to see why a film as thin as this would command the attention of western festivals and viewers when much stronger work – from directors like Zeze Takahisa, Take Masaharu, Uchida Kenji, Ikeda Akira and Yoshida Daihachi, plus any number of penniless indie talents – passes almost unnoticed. Sadly the real world has fewer happy endings than the ones Kurosawa Kiyoshi dreams up.
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