There aren’t many horror directors who suddenly shift their style towards slow-moving romances, however, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s change of tune is an anomaly that deserves the warm praise it’s been receiving. While Journey to the Shore, the director’s latest, isn’t his strongest film, nor without flaw; it remains a convincing and sentimental meditation on the states between life and death.
Journey to the Shore opens with Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) teaching piano, with Kurosawa establishing her as both an introverted and lonely character within the first ten minutes of the film. It’s a move from the director that kicks the film into action in no time with the almost immediate return of Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano), her husband, who we’re quickly informed has been dead for the last 3 years. There’s some problems that emerge fairly early in Kurosawa’s film, particularly in the fairly messy exposition that introduces both of the central characters in the film. We’re given little background, whilst having a fairly high level of empathy being demanded at the same time. Even with the rocky opening, Journey to the Shore manages to fall into place as it continues, transforming into a thoughtful and reflective look at the idea of mitoru – the act of watching over and waiting for an ill friend or family member to die.
Kurosawa’s film is cut in a way that emphasises the dreamlike and impermanent state of mitoru wants to portray. Yasuke and Mizuki embark on their journey, moving through various villages – and on a more metaphorical level, states of being. In this, the film finds a supporting cast that perform remarkably well, in that the audience is successfully positioned to both be interested in their brief stories, whilst also feeling a sense of empathy and sadness towards their circumstances.
The first stop revolves around the character of Shimakage, who works as a newspaper distributor, with the slight twist that he is no longer alive – much like Yasuke. In these early scenes, Kurosawa’s history as a horror director is ever present, in a way that markedly strengthens Journey to the Shore as a work. The director uses his familiarity with cinematic techniques to evoke surreal, otherworldly and eerie atmospheres – developed and honed in the horror context – before coating them in a new sentimentality, creating surreal and engulfing dreamscapes where the film excels.
There’s a lightness to Akiko Ashizawa’s camerawork, one that adds to this very specific mood of mono no aware1 that Kurosawa’s film aims to evoke. Whilst it occasionally falls into being overly repetitive, Yoshide Otomo and Naoko Eto’s score carries much of the same emotion of Ashizawa’s cinematography; leaving a film that carries its imaginative core in a well-rounded manner.
It’s an odd criticism to level at a film over two hours, but Journey to the Shore feels like a rare example of a work that would have excelled as a lengthier opus for Kurosawa. By the time of the closing credits, there’s a lot of strands and brief ideas that the director flirts with whilst lacking the screen time to follow it up with. There’s a very specific tenderness to Kurosawa’s film, and it’s one that cultivates a certain patience in the members of the audience receptive to such. It’s also as strong an argument as any for a longer work that plays into this patience, rewarding it. A longer Journey to the Shore could have been a film that gave the audience a more powerful exposition, that followed up Kurosawa’s abandoned narratives, and worked on a more engulfing conclusion; it’s hard to imagine this resulting in anything bar a much stronger work. Journey to the Shore remains a work that offers a reflection on passing and death that eschews cliche and parody for a genuine sincerity which, considering his history as a director, is something Kurosawa does surprising well.