By Chris Neilan.
Directors who blend genre elements with an arthouse sensibility are rarely short of fans or plaudits. Take new darling of the American independent scene Jeremy Saulnier, whose career-making sophomore feature Blue Ruin (2013) applied a realist monkey-wrench to the nuts and bolts of the revenge thriller. Or Cannes conquering screenwriter-turned-master-director Jacques Audiard whose blending of realism, expressionism and crime genre tropes in The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and A Prophet (2009) led him to the apex of the indie scene. Japanese helmer Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation) is much more established journeyman than modern master, a fringe influence in his homeland, a fixture on the J-horror circuit, best known internationally for his Cannes prize-winning 2008 domestic drama Tokyo Sonata (Kurosawa, 2008). But like Saulnier and Audiard, Kurosawa is at once fascinated by genre and, apparently, not entirely satisfied by it. He began his career making pink films and direct-to-video yakuza thrillers, so his genre roots are well established, but his most solid horror features display a sensitivity perhaps not able to fully flourish within genre confines, leading to his foray into drama with Tokyo Sonata, his greatest critical and possibly creative success. This two-pronged occupation, with the worlds of horror and drama, the cinema of death and the cinema of emotional conflicts, seems to have reached its culmination with his latest feature.
An ethereal, tentative exploration of love and grief in the company of ghosts, Journey to the Shore concerns Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu), a Tokyo piano teacher whose tendency to choose slow, mournful pieces for her young students doesn’t sit well with their parents. Whilst cooking dumplings in her quiet and lonely apartment, in a sequence which begins an ongoing motif of the ritual of food preparation, the ghost of her missing husband Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano) appears, his dark clothes emerging unsettlingly from the darkness of an uninhabited room. He tells Misuki that he died three years ago at sea, his body eaten by crabs. Mizuki wakes up the next morning as if from a dream, but finds Yusuke’s ghost still there. They decide to embark on a journey, to visit the various people who helped Yusuke to find his way back from the titular shore to Mizuki, and for Yusuke to show her ‘beautiful things’. So begins a meandering, sometimes genuinely beautiful, often frustratingly aimless journey into the small towns beyond the Tokyo sprawl, and to a sequence of other-worldly encounters with characters whose lives are also affected by the ghosts of family members.
The subtlety in Kurosawa’s symbolism might be highly impactful in a better developed plot, but here it feels like yet another element that only ever partially rewards the audience’s efforts to decipher it. Why does he return to sequences of food preparation, and what is their connection to the domestic conflicts with dead loved ones that tend to follow? Does ritual allow communion? Does it signify familial domesticity, suppression of conflict? Perhaps domestic Japanese audiences will find such elements more readily engaging, but international audiences will be left wishing Kurosawa had made more of an effort to engage their critical faculties. That said, his visual representation of the porous line between the mortal and the spiritual will reward patient viewers.
Chris Neilan is a filmmaker, screenwriter, author and critic. His work is available at www.chrisneilan.com.
Journey to the Shore was released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. Features include a 1080p transfer of the film it its original aspect ratio, theatrical trailer, and an accompanying booklet containing a statement from Kurosawa and new writing on the film by Anton Bitel.