“To the Ends of the Earth,” the story of a young Japanese journalist’s experiences in Uzbekistan filming a report for a Japanese TV travel show, was originally commissioned to celebrate 25 years of cordial diplomatic relations between director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s hyper-developed island homeland and the less affluent, landlocked Central Asian nation. As such we might have expected a straightforwardly celebratory, mildly quirky travelogue, but Kurosawa’s discreetly offbeat approach makes it much more rewarding and, in its way, revealing than that: an insightful and ambivalent interrogation of the strange and often compromised experience that is cultural tourism in the mass media age.
A great deal of Kurosawa’s recent output has been disappointingly wan, blending thinly plotted sci-fi or melodrama with stock elements of the J-horror genre he quietly, creepily revolutionized in the late ’90s and early aughts in films like “Pulse” and “Cure.” But in the most surprising place — the rural Uzbek mountains and lakes, the bazaars and alleyways of Tashkent and Samarkand — he has found rejuvenation, a thematic space in which his uncommon delicacy and floaty subjectivity can thrive without watering down the subject matter.
The central role of the intrepid but naive reporter Yoko is appealingly played by J-popstar-turned-actress Atusko Maeda, who starred in Kurosawa’s 2017 alien invasion bauble “Before We Vanish” as well as his 2013 mystery thriller “Seventh Code.” Although neglectfully treated to the point of abuse by her jaded director, Yoshi (ubiquitous Japanese actor Shota Sometani, who may someday play a likable character, but today is not that day), Yoko is nothing if not plucky, gamely wading about waist-deep in search of a possibly mythical fish; eating an undercooked local delicacy and pretending it’s delicious; and riding for take after take on a rickety-looking fun-fair ride until she throws up.
The experienced cameraman Iwao (Ryo Kase) and handsome interpreter Temur (local star Adiz Rajabov) are more sympathetic, but Yoko is often alone, and it’s on her forays into the local area, armed only with a map and a few words of broken English, that Kurosawa’s close, obviously firsthand observations about the tourist experience are most fully if subtly expressed. The vague terror of riding on a bus and not knowing which stop is yours. The actual terror of a run-in with the authorities when you’re unwittingly trespassing. The surreal thrill of discovering a place — here Tashkent’s stunning Navoi Opera House, which was built largely by Japanese prisoners of war — that feels like home, though home is 6,000 km away. And the tiny failure that is traveling all the way out to a food market only to be so intimidated by the haggling and hectoring that you end up buying packaged junk food in a corner store.
The view presented of Uzbekistan is, refreshingly, less exotic than everyday — DP Akiko Ashizawa’s shot making occasionally captures pretty vistas and colorful ethnic traditions but more often deals in the backyards and street grit of humdrum life. And if anything, even more trenchant is the critique of the synthetic perkiness of Japanese TV — all cutesy shrugs and dressed-to-camera incidents that bear no real relation to the storied lives being lived in this part of the world. “What do you really know about us?” says a kindly police officer to a quaking Yoko at one point, tellingly speaking better English than she does, as he gently disavows her of the notion that he is some boorish ogre. He becomes subtly representative of an Uzbekistan that tolerates the intrusion of these bumbling strangers with good grace, but refuses to neatly package itself for the “Eat Pray Love”-style gratification of affluent tourists.
Yoko’s apology to him is sincere, and in the airy yet intricate plotting of Kurosawa’s screenplay, also liberating; another level on which “To the Ends of the Earth” works is as a character portrait of this likable, resourceful but slightly misdirected young woman as she comes to understand her own ambitions a little better. It also gives the film its rather lovely if peculiar coda when the Uzbek hills are suddenly alive with the sound of music, and it is Yoko singing the Japanese version of Edith Piaf’s “Chanson d’Amour” on a grassy hillside, twirling like a tiny Asian Maria von Trapp.
“To the Ends of the Earth” is not flawless — for one thing, it’s questionable whether a journey to as mild a shore as this one needs two hours to complete. But its rhythm is deceptive — the gentle currents of Kurosawa’s attention sluicing across the surface of the film like developer fluid, under which all the colors, dark and light, of the fulfilling but also contradictory experience of world travel come up true and sharp. There are none of the twee blandishments of the self-help-through-global-touring genre here, yet the picture that gradually emerges is deeply relatable to anyone who has ever gone to a foreign place to explore other ways and other peoples — and found more of themselves there than they ever expected, or particularly wanted, to meet.