Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Atsuko Maeda make an odd couple: The former is best known abroad as a master of horror, starting with his 1997 international breakthrough “Cure,” while the latter was a star of idol-pop group AKB48, but has since gone on to a thriving acting career.
They have collaborated three times to date, with Maeda starring in Kurosawa’s 2013 thriller “Seventh Code,” playing a supporting role in his 2017 alien invasion sci-fi “Before We Vanish” and starring again in his latest, “To the Ends of the Earth.”
The first and third films are bookends of a sort: Both are set in exotic locales (Vladivostok and Uzbekistan, respectively) and feature Maeda’s vocals, with “Seventh Code” acting as a showcase for one of her singles.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||120 mins.|
“To the Ends of the Earth,” in which Maeda plays a travel reporter for an unnamed TV show, is not a feature-length music video, however. Instead it is a uniquely Kurosawa mix of showbiz comedy, woman-in-jeopardy thriller and romantic drama with Maeda’s lonely-but-intrepid heroine serving as the strong connecting thread.
On camera in nearly every scene, Maeda exudes steely determination beneath the anxieties of a woman alone and adrift in a strange and threatening land. Striding about Uzbek cityscapes she can part crowds like a knife, though a scene or two later she might be running through dark alleys in terror. This, I thought, was no act: Her grit helped her climb to the top of the greasy pole that was the AKB48 hierarchy.
As Yoko, she gamely discharges her reporting duties for a jaded director (Shota Sometani), nice-guy cameraman (Ryo Kase), eager-to-please AD (Tokio Emoto) and unflappable local fixer Temur (Adiz Rajabov). She splashes about a lake in a fruitless search for a famed local fish (as a burly local fisherman complains that a woman’s presence scares said fish away), loses her lunch after a stomach-churning spin on a carnival ride and chokes down a half-cooked local delicacy while forcing a smile for the camera.
These scenes skewer Japanese TV’s penchant for skimming the exotic surfaces of other cultures for cheap thrills and laughs, but beneath the sharp black comedy is a more serious look at both sides of the cultural clash. Uzbekistanis, including the Japan-loving Temur, have personalities and opinions, some not so pleasant to Yoko’s ears. “Are we so frightening to you?” a cop asks her. “What do you know about us?”
Meanwhile, she confronts her own dreams and fears. Dashing into a jewel-box of a theater, she imagines herself singing on stage, a long-nurtured ambition. Seeing a TV news story about a refinery fire in Tokyo, she worries for her fireman boyfriend. These episodes are sketched in rather than fleshed out while not being organically connected to the rest of her story.
Nonetheless, Maeda strives mightily to bring them to life, though she impresses more as a singer than the bride-to-be of the never-seen firefighter. But instead of the bubbly J-pop that made her and AKB48 famous, she delivers a full-throated rendition of the Edith Piaf classic “Hymne a l’amour” looking straight into the camera.
How brave, how bizarre — and how well this image sums up everything the heroine has experienced and learned in her Uzbekistan adventure. Lesson No. 1: To get at the heart of things, you sometimes have to go to the ends of the Earth.