Last year, the prolific Japanese genre master Kiyoshi Kurosawa decided to expand his canvas. The astonishingly fluid To the Ends of the Earth is Kurosawa's stranger-in-a-strange-land movie, and one of the strongest of its kind, but good luck trying to sum it up to friends and loved ones afterwards. Here goes nothing: on a basic level, it's the story of Yoko (Atsuko Maeda), the host of a TV travel show who finds herself in Uzbekistan to film the latest episode. Early scenes establish a marked contrast between Yoko's perky on-camera persona - pure construction - and her skittish, recessive self, anxiously retreating to her hotel room to text a boyfriend back in Japan. Her isolation out this way is abundantly clear. The sole woman on a small, all-male crew, she's subject to sexist remarks from a gruff local who accuses her of scaring off fish, and stares from passers-by while she's getting changed in the back of the van. Not incidentally, the film features some of the best directed extras you'll ever see, coached to respond to Maeda's presence among them as if she were a little green man. It's not that we feel Yoko is in danger, exactly - save of getting lost, or being ripped off by anyone she needs to pay - but she's certainly out of place, and being pushed to an extreme in the name of other people's entertainment. As she gasps at the end of a take that sees her strapped to a gravity-defying fairground ride you and I wouldn't go near without a full health-and-safety inspection team present: "This is too intense."
It is, and it will get more intense still, but what's truly spellbinding about To the Ends of the Earth is that Kurosawa doesn't seem to be doing too much pushing of his own. Instead, he gently nudges his heroine onwards into uncharted terrain, and in so doing carries the viewer's gaze into strange sidestreets and backalleys: a doomed attempt to liberate a goat being kept as a domestic pet, a concert-hall diversion that may well be a weary traveller's dream, an afternoon in a bustling bazaar where Yoko falls foul of the law, a spell in a police station where another crisis is prompted by a TV in the background. This was likely one of those productions where the funding source came first and the creatives turning up to claim it then thrashed out a movie on the spot - an improvisation in place, using sights and people that caught the filmmaker's eye. Yet the results are considered and polished enough to suggest Kurosawa is one of the very few directors currently working who appears to have transcended the limitations of conventional narrative altogether. When your images move as these do, what need to lock everything down in a script? Resistant to easy summary, Ends emerges as closer to a riddle, a deceptively simple recounting of lived and recalled experience, as vivid as the moment Yoko opens a hotel window only to be blown backwards by an unusually stiff breeze, or the many scenes in which this tiny creature has to cross an unfamiliar road. (Here there is danger, and tension: you never fancy her chances.)
Somewhere in here, too, there is the mystery of an actress. Maeda was formerly the face of the Japanese girlband AKB48, and that fact alone should give you a closer idea of just what a curious and singular enterprise this is: the British equivalent would be Ben Wheatley making a movie that sent Nicola out of Girls Aloud to Outer Mongolia. In her scenes of rest, Maeda seems mournful for reasons that go far beyond common-or-garden jetlag or anomie; obliging Yoko to adopt the inane grin and speech rhythms of a primetime game-show host, as the travel show does, seems increasingly like cruel and unusual punishment. A conversation Yoko has with her director over breakfast about her musical ambitions led me to suspect she has a lot more in common with Kurosawa than mere nationality or status, being an Asian in Eurasia. Here is another creative who's grown fearful of becoming stuck in a rut, the playful irony being that the rut Yoko finds herself in is a show that requires her to show up in a different location every day. (It may be comparable to the experience of a popstar on tour, making the same contrived moves each night in diverse locations - and bear in mind Maeda quit AKB48 in 2012 to pursue a solo career.) Kurosawa, plainly, has turned that schedule to his considerable creative advantage. By the time of Ends' typically unexpected finale - which borrows a note or two from The Sound of Music, that enduring hymn to freedom - this filmmaker has comprehensively restated he will not be tied down to a single genre, style, place or story. Mostly, he directs us as skilfully as he does those extras: he turns our head the leading lady's way, knowing there is something quietly fascinating to behold both in her and the territory she's been set to pass through.
To the Ends of the Earth is now streaming on MUBI UK.