‘Journey to the Shore' ('Kishibe no tabi'): Cannes Review

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Tadanobu Asano and Eri Fukatsu in 'Journey to the Shore'
A meandering visit to the afterlife

In Japanese auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa's latest, a young widow is reunited with her husband three years after his death, granting them peace and the renewal of their love.

Unfinished business between the dead and the living drives Journey to the Shore, and earthbound ghosts appear throughout. But this delicate exploration of the limbo between corporeal and spiritual planes could hardly be further from the genre roots of former J-horror maverick Kiyoshi Kurosawa. While admirers of the director's work might sit still for the glacial pacing, the overlong film becomes steadily less involving after a promising setup, trading mystery for a sentimental vein fed by its sudsy romantic score.

Based on a novel by Kazumi Yumoto, the script by Takashi Ujita and Kurosawa introduces the central character of Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) with a lovely scene that's echoed later in one of the film's most haunting interludes. Mizuki has been teaching piano to an untalented student, whose mother bluntly states that her daughter's lack of progress is the fault of the instructor and her joyless choice of tunes. Mizuki does in fact have a dazed, depressive air about her, and not long after she returns home to her apartment, we learn the cause.

Marking the start of a captivating motif of food preparation, Mizuki has just finished making sweet dumplings in her kitchen when she turns around and appears only mildly startled to see her husband Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano) back from the dead after three years. She welcomes him, asks him to remove his shoes, serves him dumplings and then listens calmly as he describes being drowned in the sea, looking remarkably intact for someone whose body has supposedly been eaten by crabs. Mizuki wakes up the next morning as if emerging from a dream and is surprised to find Yusuke still there.

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Promising to show her "beautiful places," he takes her on a road trip to visit the people with whom he has spent the not-quite-dead interim since she last saw him.

First is a newspaper vendor (Masao Komatsu) who clips pictures of flowers in memory of the wife who left him. Yusuke tells Mizuki that their host is not even aware of having crossed to the other side. Second are the young owners of a dumpling house (Nozomi Muraoka, Tetsuya Chiba), whose daughter died some years earlier. Last is a kind old man (Akira Emoto) whose daughter-in-law (Kaoru Okunuki) has lost her wits along with her husband. At this last rural destination, Yusuke is a beloved schoolteacher, sharing knowledge of the universe with the locals.

At each stop on their travels, another restless undead figure finds peace, allowing the living to move on. The most poignant of these episodes involves the deceased child, a struggling piano pupil coaxed by Mizuki to shine. Only when Yusuke's journey is almost complete do he and his widow finally overcome their timid formality and renew their union. However, while Fukatsu and Asano (who worked with Kurosawa in Bright Future) are both fine, their characters are not distinctive enough to make the conclusion particularly moving.

Too much lethargic, unclear plotting and saccharine melodrama mean the gentle film is seldom as intriguing as its premise, even if Kurosawa as always provides arresting visual moments and has a commanding way of building atmosphere out of stillness. In its favor, it has to be said that Journey to the Shore is far less drippy, trite or ponderous than the other Japan-set film in Cannes about the strange byroads of grief and the mystical passageway between life and death, Gus Van Sant's The Sea of Trees.

Cast: Eri Fukatsu, Tadanobu Asano, Masao Komatsu, Yu Aoi, Akira Emoto, Nozomi Muraoka, Tetsuya Chiba, Kaoru Okunuki, Masaaki Akahori, Daiki Fujino, Kana Matsumoto
Production companies: Amuse, Wowow, Showgate, Pony Canyon, Hakuhodo, Office Shirous, Commes des Cinemas
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenwriters: Takashi Ujita, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, based on the novel by Kazumi Yumoto
Producers: Hiroshi Endo, Masa Sawada, Hiroko Matsuda, Takehiko Aoki
Executive producers: Masa Sawada, Hiroko Matsuda
Director of photography: Akiko Ashizawa
Production designer: Norifumi Ataka
Costume designer: Kumiko Ogawa
Music: Yoshihide Otomo, Naoko Eto
Editor: Tsuyoshi Imai
Sales: MK2
No rating, 128 minutes.