TIFF Review: To the Ends of the Earth (Kurosawa, 2019)

I do not know exactly why the main character in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s To the Ends of the Earth sings the Japanese version of Édith Piaf’s “L’hymne à l’amour” not once, but twice, though I can venture a good guess. Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) professes late into the film that her dream career is to be a singer rather than a television host, because music is what allows her emotions to soar. I can only speculate that this torch song holds special resonance for her, and that singing it is the way she can express emotional completeness. But the song itself also holds a transmigratory status akin to Yoko’s. It passed from Piaf’s hands to Fabuki Koshiji’s in 1951, who reworked it for her Japanese listeners and made it one of her biggest successes. Recently, Hikaru Utada released her own cover version, retranslating the title closer to the French original and giving it a slightly more contemporary sound. But what matters most is that this song is a token of successful transposition. It moved seamlessly from French shores to Japanese skies, adapting itself to a new culture that could feel its emotional liquidity in the same way Piaf’s French audiences could. The lyrics were refurbished; the poetics of love remained, as did the soaring note progressions. So, bearing that in mind, one can understand why it holds a special place in Yoko’s heart. The song she so passionately engages with is tangible solace, in the sense that the success of its cultural fluidity can calm her fears that she is not cut out to be a travel reporter who visits (and is intimidated by) strange and unknown lands.

I think most of us can relate to Yoko’s plight. How often do we visit countries for the first time and feel isolated by our ignorance of their cultural norms and culinary practices! Sometimes this ignorance causes us to laugh; other times we genuinely want to buy a plane ticket and rush back to the comforts of home. Kurosawa navigates both the absurdities and nightmares of Yoko’s stay in Uzbekistan with a fantastic sense of detail, gradually ramping up the mundane horrors she is forced to bear with in order to get the perfect takes for her TV show. From munching on undercooked plov to being violently tumbled around on a rickety pendulum ride at a local amusement park, our chuckles become queasier and queasier as Yoko is forced to suffer multiple indignities in a country that is hard to navigate around as it is. Eventually we stop laughing altogether and commiserate with her hardships. To be alone in unfamiliar terrain, away from your loved ones, can be a terrifying ordeal. It’s made worse when your free time is more nerve-wracking than the job you’re doing, because you have no way to communicate to the people around you where you want to go and what you want to do. It is a game of inferences and confusions, more emotionally draining than is imaginable.

In another version, Yoko would be devoured utterly and entirely by the demands of her work. That’s not the tale Kurosawa wishes to tell here. With a song in her heart, she is not ground into dust, but instead ascends a mountaintop like Maria from The Sound of Music and lets that very sound of music take her to a place where she is happiest. A song that crossed boundaries many years ago and nestled snugly in the hearts of Japanese hearers is now the talisman Yoko uses to ward off the negative effects of her temporary displacement. Is it entirely realistic? No, certainly not (though I wish music did cure our ills that easily). But the ventures into fantasy are what make this work such an effective little charmer. Yoko is given the release she deserves after so much humiliation and seclusion, and like the professional that she is, she sticks to her work and doesn’t quit. We can thus comfortably assume her Uzbek travelogue will make it to Japanese airwaves. We can also assume that her trials will be at an end, for now she has a viable way of turning them around.

I realize this is less a formal review than a loose meditation, but I feel this particular film calls for meditation. If you see it (and I hope you do), you’ll understand why.


To the Ends of the Earth had its North American premiere at TIFF in the Masters programme on September 10, 2019.