Kiyoshi Kurosawa is the kind of director whose putative tendencies toward narrative or visual ambiguity are overwhelmed by his need to help the audience out. One could charitably consider this conflict of interest, itself, a kind of ambiguity, but its potency as such is inconsistent at best. Take 2001’s cult horror film Pulse: at the turn of the century, ghosts have begun to emerge from our computers, and the deliberately unclear nature of their structure and purpose (and, especially in 2001, that of the technology whence they arise) creates a unique and very scary kind of dramatic tension. At its best, Pulse is frightening because anything could be a threat—a blank computer screen, a bottle of water, someone walking a little too slow. But Kurosawa keeps getting in his own way, injecting his desired ethical or thematic content directly into the characters’ interactions. In the Internet age, comp-sci grad student Karasawa Harue tells us, “People don’t really connect. We all live totally separately.” Okay, gotcha.
Fourteen years later we have Journey to the Shore, Kurosawa’s latest film probing the liminal space between life and death, corporeality and ghostliness, this time for its romance rather than its horror. Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) is a children’s piano teacher; the faltering lesson that opens the film keys us into a fundamental distress in her person. This distress is explained, and in some sense resolved, when she is visited at supper by her husband, Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano), disappeared and presumed dead three years ago. The soft-spoken Yusuke confirms that he is indeed dead—committed suicide at sea, body devoured by crabs—and has made the treacherous expedition back into the world of the living. He requests her presence on a trip to support those he “left in the lurch,” thus occasioning their titular journey to the shore.
The ensuing, haltingly paced trek introduces us to a cast of characters who in one way or another need Yusuke and Mizuki’s help: Mr. Shimakage the newspaper printer, Jinnian and Fujie the dumpling chefs, an entire village eager to receive Yusuke’s astronomy lessons. Some of them, like Yusuke, are dead folks dawdling in the world of the living; some are good, living people with serious detachment issues. All of them have a lesson to learn.
Most prominent in this respect is Mizuki herself, so ecstatic to have her dead husband back that she’ll swiftly give up any reality of which he isn’t a part. When Yusuke makes clear that he doesn’t quite belong in this realm, Mizuki yells back: “I don’t care what you are. Stay with me forever!” Later, when they find momentary bliss living with their dumpling-chef friends: “I want to stay in this town forever. If only we could do that…” And in case you weren’t clear on the prudent alternative to such unreason, here’s Yusuke’s final lesson to his village classroom: “Nothingness is the foundation of everything. Endings are just beginnings.” All this winking clarity–move on, Mizuki!–delivered to an intrusively gooey soundtrack, no less.
I won’t go so far as to say that the entirety of Journey to the Shore is lathered in such didacticism. Kurosawa’s greatest strength, as in Pulse, is still his penchant for exquisite framing. In both films, his characters often seem in a perpetual state of “beholding,” their backs to the camera, frozen in place by what they’re looking at. Whether it be a long-dead husband or a wall of cut-and-paste flowers, the objects of his characters’ gazes are all the more captivating because we have no idea what’s going on between the two of them. Something, gracefully, is being withheld from us. And when the lights periodically flicker or dim as if touched by a supernatural presence, we are suddenly thrust into the kind of deep-seated attachment which afflicts Mizuki and the others: we feel the most fundamental contours of their world permeated by loved ones lost.
Journey to the Shore is best when it tracks along the lines of such profound ambivalence, and Kurosawa pulls out some of his most piercing material near the end. If the dead in some sense stay with us after they’ve gone, who is it that can’t get over who? Is there a genuine sense in which they still actively inhabit us, or is it that we just won’t let them be dead? Such unresolved questions are not the sole criteria for a successful romantic drama, and bet you that Journey gets in some good, requisite sobs toward the end. But there’s no denying that a lumbering, episodic structure such as this movie possesses can only be further deadened by the detectable calculation of where each episode will take us. Even a film about dead people who just won’t leave us alone can acquire a moment-to-moment vitality, and it is in this task that Journey to the Shore ultimately founders.
The 53rd New York Film Festival runs from September 25 to October 11 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.