A once great director continues his steady decline with a film that's sometimes beautiful but mostly dull and infuriating.
Journey to the Shore (TIFF Review)
There are missteps, and then there’s stepping off a cliff, and that distinction couldn’t be clearer while watching Journey to the Shore. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest film starts out as a sort of middle ground between his earlier genre films (Kairo, Cure) and the weighty drama he mastered in Tokyo Sonata before turning into a turgid mess. Over two hours in length, Journey to the Shore is, quite literally, all about the journey, which in this case feels like the slowest funeral march imaginable. It’s a film whose terrible qualities sting more than anything, since Kurosawa’s best days seem to be behind him. To say that he missed the mark with this film would be incorrect, because it would imply he was aiming at something to begin with.
At the very least, Kurosawa starts things off with a promising premise (he, along with co-writer Takashi Ujita, adapted the screenplay from a novel by Kazumi Yumoto): Piano teacher Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) comes home to her apartment to find her husband Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano) literally appearing out of thin air while she does the dishes. Yusuke drowned in the ocean three years earlier, and despite his body never being found, there’s no plot twist or rational explanation here: Yusuke is 100% dead, his body devoured by crabs soon after he died. For some reason, his spirit has returned, looking and acting like any other human being, and he offers Mizuki the chance to go on a journey with him across the country. She accepts, and the film switches gears into an episodic narrative as they travel from one place to another, meeting people (including other normal-looking ghosts) that Yusuke has come to know in the years since his death.
This is where, despite my negativity towards the film (which comes from a place of disappointment more than anything), Journey to the Shore excels. There’s something bewildering and fascinating about the way Kurosawa creates a new mythology around death that fundamentally goes against all logic. Some dead people move on to the afterlife while others stay behind, living ordinary lives while fully aware of the fact that they’re a ghost. Mizuki and Yusuke’s first stop takes them to a village where they stay with Mr. Shimakage (Masao Komatsu), a newspaper distributor who used to employ Yusuke. He turns out to be a ghost too and eventually reveals a deep regret over mistreating his wife, presumed to be dead or long gone by now. The segment delves into themes of regret that come with the loss of a loved one, and Kurosawa ends his protagonists’ visit on an image that quickly changes from eerie to moving.
That scene doesn’t come close to matching what comes next, as the couple’s next stop finds them working at a small restaurant by the sea. There’s a self-contained sequence where Mizuki talks to the restaurant’s co-owner about a piano she keeps upstairs, and what follows is remarkable in the way Kurosawa’s framing, theatricality, and use of music coalesce into an emotionally charged moment that simultaneously evokes the pain of loss and the opportunity to move on from it. It’s a sequence that is, by far, the best thing Kurosawa has achieved in a long time, and a clear sign of the potential masterwork the film could have been.
But that’s only the first hour or so of Journey to the Shore, and for the next half, Kurosawa slowly dismantles everything he deftly establishes through the first two episodes. After a blowup between Mizuki and Yusuke reveals that things weren’t always perfect between the two, the film appears to reset itself, even going for the possibility of an “it was all a dream” explanation. There’s a brief detour, and then Yusuke magically reappears, whisking his wife off to a farm owned by yet another ghost. At this point, everything stalls, and the recurring link between guilt and mourning dissipate in favour of an attempt to add some sort of logic to the way death works in the film’s universe. It’s a classic case of ruining the mystery, and it’s absolutely unnecessary. The same goes for a subplot introduced about a couple going through a similar situation, except by the time this story resolves itself, it’s difficult to understand what exactly Kurosawa’s purpose might be. Or maybe it’s just that watching everything slowly fade into indiscernible white noise makes it impossible to care enough to try and figure it out.
And that’s why Journey to the Shore can feel so infuriating in how much it squanders the foundation it built. On a meta level, as a fan of Kurosawa, it’s easy to feel like the characters in this film at times— unable to accept that his ability to make genuinely great films has pretty much died. Watching Journey to the Shore is similar to watching an EKG machine show a few beeps before flatlining. I don’t want to say goodbye to Kurosawa, but like Mizuki, perhaps it’s time to finally let go.