Kiyoshi Kurosawa made his name directing mystery, horror, and action movies (most familiarly to U.S. audiences, the original Pulse, which was remade in America and spawned a whole franchise); in this way, his 2015 feature Journey to the Shore could be considered something of a departure. But there is still mystery to it, and the slight chill of horror.
Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) is a piano instructor unable to move on since her husband, Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano) was lost at sea some three years prior. When he suddenly reappears in their home, she wonders not where he’s been or what’s become of him, just what took him so long coming back. He explains that he died, quite horribly, his body completely destroyed. He asks her to join him in revisiting people along the road back to the sea, where he can find his final rest. Then she wakes up – perhaps she’s dreamed it all? But no, still he sits waiting for her. And soon they’re off. They meet all kinds – some mourning, some dead, some joyfully living. A dentist when he lived, Mizuki soon learns he lived a dozen different types of lives in the three years since as he gradually made his way back to her. She has no demands of their time together nor expectations for how long their trip will take. Kurosawa’s presentation is so languid and calm they could be gone for days or years. Time and space become unreliable, each moment and interaction slipping into the next.
Some travelers, like Yusuke, have returned to find a sense of peace. Others fight violently against it. The living have the same range of responses to their presence; none are very surprised though. Some critics have connected this to Buddhist and Shinto beliefs of renewable life, and perhaps they’re right – I confess to not being terribly well-read on either subject – but Yusuke’s life here isn’t coming back around, exactly. He’s allowed to return for just as long as it takes for him to travel from the store to Mizuki and back again. His presence for her is at once deeply fulfilling and somewhat anxious, as she knows how it must end. But she was robbed of her chance to say goodbye three years ago. At least now she’ll have that.
Even by the modern standards of slow cinema, Journey to the Shore is one slow, slow movie. But the effect for the willing viewer becomes completely transportive; I lost complete sense of my surroundings and conception of the world, given totally over to this vision of intersecting planes of existence and spiritual realms. It’s like spending an entire film in the ghost world of Ugetsu. It’s almost sinfully seductive, but not in the sort of pleasure-filled way that typically suggests. The spiritual realm here, coexisting as it does with the everyday, is an escape from the responsibilities of life, but also a denial of them. Mizuki comments at one point, as she and Yusuke stroll through a small town, owing nothing to anyone, that she wishes things could remain just as they are forever. Yusuke knows that isn’t possible, and Mizuki understands her request too excessive, but it speaks to the unending desire for peace in an unstable, uncompromising world.
Kurosawa doesn’t let himself off with such an easy conclusion, though. In the film’s loveliest scene, Yusuke lectures in village about the innumerable circumstances that resulted in all of them being there at that place and that time, and how, in the view of eternity, how small and impossible their lives seem, how fortunate they are to be precisely where and as they are. It’s not an excessively ornate scene. An inspired lighting change comes when some overhead lights gradually flicker to life as dusk sets in. The camera simply watches Yusuke as he delights in this moment, in the dusk and the warmth of the day and the happy group surrounding him and his wife, momentarily, just a few feet away. It’s the sort of rare moment in cinema that directly calls upon one of its greatest capacities, allowing – even demanding – that we focus on the beauty of the moment in front of us, reminding us that however imperfect our lives are, every moment contains its own perfection. And because this lecture is spoken by a dead man who will soon go to his permanent rest, we can further recall how fleeting this all is, how much there is to soak in and experience before we reach our inevitable conclusion. I’m nearly tearing up thinking about the scene now; you can imagine the effect it has in the moment.
Still sadly without distribution in the U.S., Journey to the Shore’s release through Eureka and Masters of Cinema in the U.K. might be the only way to see the film with English subtitles. In any event, while the release is light on supplements – just the theatrical trailer and a booklet with a (very good) essay by Anton Bitel – the presentation is superb. The perception with modern films is that it’s simply a matter of pushing a few buttons to get the digital file that’s distributed to cinema onto Blu-ray, but I’ve seen that process upended often enough to know the possibilities for mediocrity are plenty available. In any event, the film looks incredible here. Kurosawa often employs artificial changes in light that have a remarkable dramatic and emotional impact, and which flow seamlessly here. Some scenes feature bits of…I don’t even know what, floating around light as it pours into the room, and I didn’t notice any instances of compression artifacts or other troubling technical imperfections. Contrast, color (muted, but present), and depth are all outstanding. When they go into the forest, every leaf and stick is beautifully detailed. I have absolutely no complaints with this presentation, and this is a lovely film I simply would not have seen otherwise had Masters of Cinema not decided to release it. I’m enormously grateful to them for that, and I hope you will be, too.