When Japanese directors of a certain age and status film abroad, they usually head for developed countries, not developing ones. Although, to be fair, their choice of foreign locales often comes down to box-office calculations. Japanese audiences enjoy seeing famous European sites on the screen (and mentally planning their next vacation), so more Japanese films feature the Eiffel Tower than Angkor Wat.
But Kiyoshi Kurosawa is different. Now 63, he helped ignite the worldwide J-horror boom two decades ago with such cult classics as “Cure” (1997) and “Pulse” (2001), while developing a signature style that relied more on creepy atmospheric effects than in-your-face shocks.
Unlike many of his J-horror colleagues, he refused to be defined by the genre, though he never abandoned his horror roots. Even 2008’s “Tokyo Sonata,” a serious drama about a dysfunctional family, has disturbing moments that only Kurosawa could have created.
Kurosawa has also ventured farther afield than the local norm, shooting his 2013 thriller “Seventh Code” in Vladivostok, a port city in Russia’s far east, physically close to Japan, but politically on the other side of the moon.
For his latest film, the appropriately titled “To the Ends of the Earth,” Kurosawa went to Uzbekistan, a Central Asian country many Japanese likely couldn’t locate on a map. Once again his star is Atsuko Maeda, a former member of idol-pop group AKB48 who also played the woman-in-jeopardy lead in “Seventh Code.” This time her character is a reporter for a travel show who takes a journey of self-discovery as she traipses about the cities and deserts of Uzbekistan.
So when I met Kurosawa at Theatre Shinjuku just after the film’s world premiere, my first question was the inevitable, “Why Uzbekistan?”
“A producer suddenly asked me one day if I’d like to shoot there,” he says. “At the time I knew nothing about Uzbekistan, but I’d been interested in the Silk Road from a long time back, so I’d thought I’d like to go to Samarkand — and that’s in Uzbekistan. I took the job just so I could go to that type of place.”
Fortunately, Kurosawa and his producers had the full cooperation of local authorities.
“They made the film to celebrate the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Uzbekistan,” he says, “but we were given total freedom regarding the story. Anything was all right.”
They had hurdles to overcome, however, such as obtaining permissions and assembling a local staff.
“It was tough for the producers,” Kurosawa says, “but when I actually started shooting I didn’t find so much that was different from Japan.” Even the young Japanese-speaking Uzbekistanis hired as interpreters rose to the occasion, despite their lack of film experience. “They carried equipment, set up the camera and helped in other ways,” Kurosawa says. “They were enthusiastic and worked hard.”
Despite all his preproduction preparation, Kurosawa rewrote his original script once he was in the country and could see how his imagined Uzbekistan differed from the reality.
“Even when I go somewhere in Japan it turns out to be completely different than what I’d thought,” he says. “But that’s the fate and the appeal and the fun of making films. Things happen that are more wonderful than you could have ever imagined.”
Maeda’s intrepid reporter, Yoko, similarly encounters an Uzbekistan that’s exotic and enticing, but also strange and threatening, at least in her own mind.
“She can’t speak the language and bumps up against small culture barriers,” Kurosawa says. “Things are different from what she thought. But that’s the start of understanding. If you avoid culture clashes, you never understand the other person.
“Because her character knows nothing when she goes (to Uzbekistan), I asked (Maeda) to go there knowing nothing as well,” he adds. “The object was to make her performance more natural.”
In pursuit of funny, quirky, shallow bits of local color to goose ratings, Yoko and her staff are nonetheless pros who will do what it takes to get the job done, from endless retakes to abrupt changes of plan. (One of Yoko’s brainstorms: Buy a goat and release it into the wild, which she is about to do when an angry Uzbekistani woman tells her it will be eaten by wild dogs.)
“She’s in a tough situation and is serious about her work,” Kurosawa says, “but she also has to do idiotic things in the course of production — all very common in Japan.”
The film’s story of a lone woman struggling to find her way in a foreign land, Kurosawa says, has something in common with “Seventh Code.”
“The experience of making that film made me want to definitely do this one with Atsuko Maeda,” he says. “No matter what fix she finds herself in she won’t give up. And no matter what is asked of her she’ll say, ‘I understand’ and do it. That approach to work is wonderful in someone so young.”
One of Kurosawa’s harder requests to Maeda was to sing the Edith Piaf anthem “L’hymne a l’amour” against a backdrop of towering mountains.
“She’s a pro singer so I thought she could do it easily,” he says. “But because she’s a pro, the choice of an Edith Piaf song put a lot of pressure on her. She spent a lot of time taking lessons, starting way before the shoot.”
Those lessons did not prepare her for the reality of singing out in the open at an altitude of more than 2,000 meters, however.
“The air was thin and there wasn’t a lot of oxygen,” says Kurosawa. “For her to sing that song from beginning to end in one take was really hard. But I wanted to do it that way from the beginning. The scene of Yoko singing with her every ounce of strength expresses, in a way anyone can understand, that the walls she built around herself have fallen.”
Kurosawa says that he has been tempted to build such walls himself.
“I go to a lot of foreign film festivals but I’m a real scaredy-cat,” he says. “It takes courage to go to some place you don’t know, but human beings want to see what lies just up ahead. So even though I shouldn’t, I’ll jump on a bus and go take a look at a market. My curiosity is aroused. That sort of thing is natural human behavior. You’re scared, but you go a little farther.
“And then you become even more scared,” he says with a laugh.
“To the Ends of the Earth” is now screening at selected cinemas nationwide.