The word “boring” is a problematic one in the context of a film review. It is automatically dismissive, inherently disdainful and wholly disrespectful of the simple fact that there are as many valid responses to the same artwork as there are food preparation scenes in modern Japanese cinema. And it usually says much more about the limited capabilities of the reviewer than it does about the film. But Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s “Journey to the Shore” which played in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes tests to its very limit my resolve to not use that sneering, thoughtless term in any review, ever, by delivering its glacially paced, maddeningly abstruse, blandly shot and simperingly scored story in such deadening detail. Can I state definitively that “Journey to the Shore” is boring? No, but I can say I was bored by it, stiffer than a corpse at the height of rigor mortis. And then it won the Un Certain Regard award for Best Director, which just goes to show you what I know.
Based on a novel by Japanese writer Kazumi Yumoto, the story is a mystical transposition of the real Japanese tradition of mitoru whereby a loved one will sit by the bed of a dying person and commune with them closely right until the point of death, the idea being to accompany them, as it were, right to the threshold of the afterlife, and prepare both parties for separation. This extended act of leavetaking is given a supernatural twist here, though, by taking place in the period after death, so that three years following his drowning, Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano) returns in the flesh to his piano-teacher wife Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu), the depth of whose grief is gently hinted at by her choice of mournful music for her students to play. Seemingly summoned by some sweet dumplings she cooks one afternoon, Yusuke simply shows up, sits down and eats, telling an only mildly surprised, and barely joyful Mizuki that they should travel together to visit all the people he’s met in his ghostly incarnation (which is not ghostly at all, but pointedly prosaic). This they duly do, encountering other people and families along the way, some of whom are in the same post-mortem limbo that Yusuke is experiencing, until they come to journey’s end with a new sense of acceptance and completion.
I can see how, given that description, “Journey to the Shore” actually might sound pretty great, but confession: I relied heavily on the press notes. The film itself does not explain this mitoru ritual, and so all we really know is that after an elegant beginning Mizuki and her no-longer-dead husband set off on a long, episodic ramble, only rarely really conversing and moving with underwater sluggishness through indifferent landscapes, though he promises her “beautiful places.” The encounters they have are enigmatic to the point of impenetrability, and, struggling to parse the interactions between each of the various characters, it’s hard to detect a single relatably human response.
Why aren’t they sad, happy, surprised or fearful about the remarkable supernatural experience they are having? Why aren’t the living dead a bit more, well, alive? My mind wandering off at a faster clip than the somnolent leads, I did start to wonder if there was a key left lying around that might unlock some meaning in the endless cycle of cryptically banal dialogue and middle-distance stares. I wondered if in fact they were both dead, or if the whole world were dead, and then finally, if I had myself expired somewhere in the middle of it all without noticing. But no, this is simply an evocation of an afterlife so banal and uneventful that there is even a character who is apparently unaware that he has, in fact, kicked the bucket. Delicate hints are dropped here and there that Mizuki and Yusuke’s marriage may not have been a bed of roses, and that perhaps there is a different way to interpret the manner of Yusuke’s death, but with characters so distant, so dazed and numb, it’s difficult to care enough to hunt them down.
Mirroring the promising beginning, there is a brief flurry of interest at the end, where in their final encounter, Yusuke and Mizuki meet a sweet old farmer, who lives with his troubled, widowed daughter and grandson. In this small village, Yusuke is almost a local hero, a teacher whose classes on astrophysics and science are packed with attentive locals of all ages. He talks about light being a particle and wave, about Einstein and about how zero is not zero. For a moment it seems like Kurosawa wants to make a point about science and supernatural, about the indivisibility of the observable universe from the spiritual one which is its corollary. But that moment flickers out too, in a scene in a forest with some oddly fake-looking mist which, if it evoked anything at all, called to mind the storyline of Gus Van Sant‘s widely derided “Sea of Trees” — hardly the most flattering comparison point.
There is a deeply beautiful Japanese minimalist tradition, in decor, in literature and in filmmaking, which often acknowledges the co-existence, and interdependence of the natural and the supernatural. And clearly that is where Kurosawa is positioning himself with ‘Journey’ — a long way from the horror and genre thriller titles that made his name. But seldom has a matter of life and death been less involving than here — not wondrous enough to be likened to a ghost, “Journey to the Shore” is the corpse of a film: lifeless, bloodless, insensate. [C-]
Check out the rest of our coverage from the 2015 Cannes Film Festival by clicking here.