A piano teacher goes on a second honeymoon of sorts with her missing husband when he returns as a ghost in “Journey to the Shore,” Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s competent return to human drama in the vein of “Tokyo Sonata,” albeit with a spiritual dimension. Traversing East Japan from small towns to remote hamlets, the film’s winding, episodic form ultimately conveys a blindingly obvious message, but the way in which its motley characters work through feelings of loss, regret and acceptance have a hushed, timorous sentiment that’s uniquely Japanese. Fans of Kurosawa’s earlier psycho-thrillers may desire more eeriness and visual panache, but those who’ve accepted the helmer’s conscious change of tune and pace should be gently touched.
Films about the deceased returning to comfort their beloved or to take care of unfinished business have many Western exemplars, such as “Ghost” or “Truly, Madly, Deeply.” However, it’s more than just a creative conceit in Japanese culture, rooted as it is in Buddhist and Shinto beliefs that nature and all living beings are renewable in different forms. Films invoking this spirit abound, from Akihiko Shiota’s “Yomigaeri” to Nobuhiro Obayashi’s time-slip fantasies.
Adapted from a novel by Kazumi Yumoto, an author better known for her children’s and adolescent fiction, “Journey to the Shore,” according to Kurosawa, concerns a spiritual reinterpretation of mitoru — the Japanese custom of watching over the terminally ill until they pass away, similar to a hospice service. The film is also a simple love story about the invisible walls in a marriage, something that would resonate with many Japanese wives, for whom a long vacation with their workaholic husbands might seem possible only in the afterlife. Compared with the helmer’s previous work, the clunky Freudian horror-fairy-tale mashup “Real,” “Journey” is less ambitious but more heartfelt, never straining to be novel or profound.
It’s been three years since piano teacher Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu, the “Parasyte” movies, “Villain”) saw her dentist husband, Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano, “47 Ronin,” “Bright Future”) go missing, and try as she might to carry on with life as usual, her lugubriousness is rubbing off on those around her. As mysteriously as he disappeared, Yusuke materializes out of the blue in their home one night. Instead of surprise, elation or fear, Mizuki’s immediate reaction is irritation that he’s forgotten to take off his shoes at the door.
Yusuke unceremoniously declares that he’s died at sea in Toyama in the Northlands, gnawed clean by crabs, thus leaving no trace of his fate. He invites her to go on a trip to meet the people who showed him kindness on his arduous route home. As he retraces his footsteps on his Orphean journey with Mizuki by his side, a tapestry of human experience unfurls.
First they call on Shimakage (Masao Komatsu), a newspaper distributor whose work ethic is so strong it overrides his marriage and even death. Then they help out at a Chinese diner run by warm, industrious couple Jinnai (Tetsuya Chiba) and Fujie (Nozomi Muraoka). Finally they arrive at a small village deep in the countryside, and stay with farmer Hoshitani (Akira Emoto), his widowed daughter-in-law, Kaoru (Kaoru Okunuki), and her young son, Ryota (Daiki Fujino).
At each stop, Mizuki learns that roiling beneath their hosts’ routine life are troubled memories and feelings of regret and self-blame. Even the central characters’ marriage is far from harmonious: Not only are there suggestions that Yusuke suffered depression and took his own life, but it emerges that something Yusuke did probably causes Mizuki more pain than his death.
As their journey reaches its inevitable destination, the purpose of Yusuke’s return becomes crystal-clear. The titular shore symbolically echoes the unique Japanese Buddhist ritual of O-higan (yonder shore), held to pray for the enlightenment of souls transitioning to the other world. And not only Yusuke, but also Mizuki, is lead to a new realm of transcendence.
Not withstanding a relatively large supporting cast, whose performances are unassuming but credible, the dramatic landscape is dominated by the central characters, whose relationship undergo engaging redefinitions. Asano, who hasn’t worked with the helmer since “Bright Future” (2003), is suitably cast to play a stiff given his trademark po-faced acting. But the film really belongs to Fukatsu (starring in a Kurosawa feature for the first time), who captures Mizuki’s passionate yet brittle personality with unerring precision, yet brings a measure of unpredictability to her manifold sensibilities.
The film’s intriguing mood changes owes much to Hidenori Nagata and Hiroshi Iimura’s bold, abrupt dimming of interiors, or the lights being switched on, one by one, to create a supernatural or unsettling atmosphere. Visuals possess a clean texture, but apart from one slightly chilling scene, d.p. Akiko Ashizawa, who has lensed most of Kurosawa’s films, strives to foreground the blandness of this humdrum world, interspersed with occasional abstract compositions of natural scenery. The only jarring component is Yoshide Otomo and Naoko Eto’s symphonic score, which whips up a melodramatic storm.