Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Journey to the Shore has its defining moment a few minutes in, as its focus shifts from the meandering melancholy of a dejected widow to something more novel and alluring. Preparing a quick meal of sweet dumplings, Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) finds her departed husband, Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano), watching her from across the room. Her understated reaction sums up the film’s inconspicuous handling of this supernatural incident: Distressed at her phantom husband’s forgetfulness, Mizuki reminds him to take off his shoes in the house. He smiles and complies, updating his wife on his current situation (his body has been eaten by crabs). When she wakes the next morning, expecting it all to have been a dream, Yusuke is still there, curled up on the living room floor, again wearing his shoes.
This setup, which cloaks an inconsequential domestic struggle beneath the spectral cover of a ghost story, seems to bode well for the ethereal chamber drama. Kurosawa has deftly navigated the luminal spaces between both genres and states of being in the past, injecting uncanny thriller elements into tales of personal crisis, stoking horror by emphasizing simple instances of eerie discordance. He seems to have landed upon a similarly dualistic concept here, crossing a mythic journey of homecoming with a mundane cataloguing of a relationship’s specific nuances, encompassing big events and small aggravations. Yet in spinning a fantastical narrative in the most routine manner possible, the film itself remains too pallid and diffuse, the development of its mood and characters suffering as a result.
Three years after vanishing at sea, Yusuke returns with a caveat; physical intimacy is no longer possible, and he makes it clear that he’s only here temporarily. He assures Mizuki that he’s not a vengeful spirit, and promises to spend this brief time on Earth showing her the “beautiful places” he’s visited on his long journey home. But in spite of a few moments in which Journey to the Shore makes good on that beauty, illuminating the comfort of small rituals and carefully probing the tender spots around long-buried conflicts, there’s little magic or insight here. Kurosawa allows for a few brief flights of fancy, further abandoning realism for whimsical bursts of glowing color, but otherwise it’s a humdrum slog of a voyage.
The narrative involves visits to families in similar circumstances, caught with one foot in both worlds, as a member prepares to pass over into the spirit realm forever. These episodes seem like object lessons to help Mizuki adjust to her loss, and it’s fitting that the husband, despite his watery grave, wasn’t a hardy seaman lost battling the ocean’s fury, but a humble ship’s dentist who fell overboard while ill. The film presents no passionate reckoning with the extremes of romantic rupture, instead opting for a composed diagnosis of petty grievances and traumatic mistakes, allowing this relationship to be repaired before it ends. The issues that separate the two lovers are gradually resolved, as the plot shuffles onward, toward a form of resolution that might be moving were it not so reticently developed. The results are as forcibly schematic as Kurosawa’s recent Tokyo Sonata, but possess little of that film’s unsteady charm, too aloof and insipid to make good on its early promise.