Yoko in Samarkand

I had mixed feelings watching this film. I was confident it would turn out to be well-made, intelligent and probably provocative as a recent film by Japanese auteur Kurosawa Kiyoshi, but I started it without too much prior reading. My first thought was about a Zhang Yimou film, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (China-Hong Kong Japan 2005). In that film, an older Japanese man undertakes a trip into a remote part of China in order to record a performance by a local folk artist on behalf of his son, an ethnologist who is too ill to finish his work. In Kurosawa’s film, a young Japanese woman works as the presenter on a reality TV travel programme and her latest brief is to visit Uzbekistan where her producer-director hopes to find interesting local attractions around which he can construct brief clips of his presenter interacting with an alien culture and its people. She leaves behind her boyfriend, a firefighter.

Yoko releases a goat that she discovered tethered in the city.

My initial sense of trepidation proved to be justified. This is a strange film which seems to be pursuing several different possible narratives and different approaches which didn’t really come together for me. That isn’t to say that there weren’t some interesting sequences as well as some sections which certainly seemed like more familiar Kurosawa territory. We follow a small Japanese crew – a producer-director and a two man camera and sound crew plus the presenter and an Uzbek-Japanese translator. In their quest for interesting material they search for a possibly mythical fish in a large lake and try some authentic Uzbek cooking in a roadside diner. In both cases, the Uzbek translator Temur (Adiz Rajabov) sets up the scenes with puzzled local people – a fisherman and a woman cooking in her diner. In both cases the presenter struggles to perform her task, putting on the proverbial ‘brave face’ for the camera, developed into an over-cheery performance. We realise fairly quickly that the presenter, Yoko (Maeda Atsuko) is going to be the central character in whatever narratives emerge. This J-pop star has built up a long list of film and TV credits in the last few years and I found her performance quite remarkable as she appears childlike one moment and sophisticated and elegant the next. But perhaps it would be useful to think about Japan and Uzbekistan first before grappling with what else Kurosawa offers us in this film.

Visiting the market in Tashkent . . .

The most damning review of the film comes from Tony Rayns in Sight & Sound. Bluntly, he sees this as sentimental twaddle but he does make some useful points about Japanese culture and its post-war relationship with overseas travel. This film is a co-production between Uzbekistan and Japan and it celebrates 25 years of diplomatic relations between the countries and 70 years since one of Tashkent’s most famous sights, the Navoi Theatre, was decorated by Japanese POWs (captured by Soviet forces at the end of the Second World War). This latter event is worked into the narrative in the closing section. These kinds of commissions are always problematic for auteur filmmakers, who clearly don’t want to make a banal ‘official’ film. Kurosawa’s script here tries to turn the references to the Navoi Theatre into a kind of personal quest/triumph for the presenter Yoko and on that score I think I agree with Rayns that it doesn’t work. I’m no judge of Japanese popular music but I felt that Maeda Atsuko’s voice just isn’t up to the demands Kurosawa places on it (which include performing in a fantasy sequence).

. . . and the Novoi theatre.

Uzbekistan must be one of the least known and least understood countries on Earth as far as much of Western culture is concerned – and indeed, Japanese culture. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film set in Uzbekistan before (though neighbouring Kazakhstan has produced several seen internationally). Kurosawa’s film features mountain landscapes, the capital, Tashkent, and the second largest city, Samarkand, the historic city on the Silk Road. Tashkent in particular seems like a city combining Islamic and Soviet architecture in distinctive ways and the Russian influence in the country, which lasted for perhaps 180 years, seems to match the British presence in India over a similar period. Rayns refers to the ‘primitivism’ of Uzbek culture with those scare quotes underlined to present a critique of Japanese attitudes. This does raise the question of the different elements in the film and ‘how’, or rather ‘if’, they can come together. Is the film primarily a critique of those reality TV shows in which a celebrity presenter travels around ‘exotic’ locations? Or is it a character study about a young woman in a difficult job who feels alone in a foreign country? Yoko is certainly presented as being apart from the four men who make up the rest of the TV group. There is a suggestion that she is the star of the group but she is treated badly and arguably subject to abuse by the insufferable director who seems indifferent to the potentially dangerous situations he pushes her into. On the other hand, she doesn’t really attempt to bond with the other three guys who are generally supportive. The most successful part of the film for me (apart from the glimpses of life in Uzbekistan through the camerawork of Ashizawa Akiko) are those scenes in which we feel Yoko’s sense of being alone in an anonymous hotel or on the streets of a crowded and unfamiliar city. This rang true and I’ve certainly experienced similar feelings. But Yoko’s unguided trips, which turn into three separate ‘adventures’, also offer Kurosawa the opportunity to develop his more usual unsettling atmosphere associated with horror films as Yoko stumbles down darkened streets or runs through a crowded bazaar. It could be argued that these generic touches support the drama of Yoko’s story but in a way they seem to me to undermine the attempted critique of the ‘Japanese abroad’ or the reality TV crew whose ignorance simply makes us angry.

I think I’m out of step with many of the reviews I read which generally praise the film. As I’ve indicated, there are many good things about it, but it doesn’t seem to add up. I think you have to be very careful with this kind of culture clash narrative. Though Japanese tourists in Asia carry the legacy of Imperial aggression in the 1930s/40s (which has still not been worked through enough in some countries), the post 1945 generations are usually accepted as being non-aggressive with no specific agenda. On the other hand they wouldn’t want to be seen as ignorant, insensitive and non-caring. Kurosawa’s characters are in danger of fitting those descriptions, especially the director and to some extent Yoko. On the other hand, Uzbekistan has an authoritarian political system and is one of the worst countries for human rights issues, including slavery in its cottonfields, a very long-running issue. Kurosawa was taking on a very difficult task. I’m not sure what could have improved the film but his approach – discovering things as the shoot went on, might not have been the best way to approach the production.

To a certain extent, I did some research about Uzbekistan, but prior to the shooting, I didn’t go to Uzbekistan and look for the details. If I really wanted to learn about Uzbekistan in detail, I’d have to do it for years. I’d have to spend time living there and learning the language. But that was not my aim for this particular film. My aim was not to make something particular to Uzbekistan, but something that could happen anywhere, to anybody—myself included—somebody who doesn’t know anything about the country that she or he goes into, and struggles mightily at small clashes between cultures. That was my aim for this, which is why I didn’t go do research beforehand on location. (from the interview conducted by Lawrence Garcia for MUBI Notebook, September 2019)