Journey to the Shore could have gone in radically different directions with its intriguing premise, that of ghosts who appear to be humans for all intents and purposes. But Kiyoshi Kurosawa chooses the most counterintuitive and difficult of them all: the romantic drama. The film stays solidly grounded in the relationship between the two main characters, Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) and Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano), using it as the basis for the more eerie or “genre” elements that Kurosawa occasionally hints at. But even in this regard, the romantic aspects are consistently elided; though the ghosts seem to have the exact same physiology as regular people, Mizuki and Yusuke almost never touch throughout the narrative, instead conveying their romance through discussions of the past, when the two were married before Yusuke’s death, and longing glances as their subdued chemistry shines through.
From the very beginning, Journey to the Shore is clearly playing by completely different rules, refusing to conform to any familiar narrative structure. After a short scene introducing Mizuki teaching piano to a young girl that will not be seen again, Yusuke shows up in her apartment without warning, having been gone for three years. Only as the scene goes along does the viewer learn that Yusuke has been dead (a fact unknown to Mizuki) and reincarnated, but it is left unexplained why Mizuki reacts with such composure. Indeed, the opening of the film is suggested to be a dream for a few moments after the couple’s reunion, an otherwise superfluous occurrence that reinforces the odd, unpredictable nature of the film.
Otherwise, Journey to the Shore proceeds in a relatively straightforward manner, staying with its two main characters as it adopts an almost episodic, road-trip style structure. For the most part, the movie revolves around a handful of extended encounters with people connected in various ways to Yusuke, all of whom he met after he became a corporeal ghost. Kurosawa never reveals their true state of being (whether it be alive or dead) until after their initial introductions, aligning his film’s viewpoint squarely with Mizuki and doling out information about the nature of the afterlife in pieces. Perhaps not coincidentally, some of the most powerful scenes in the film come at the climax of these individual encounters—one of Kurosawa’s greatest strengths in this movie is the skill with which he slowly builds the emotion of a section, unleashing it in one scene, then letting it recede during a short traveling sequence before escalating once more, matched by his impeccable use of long shots.
After a rather unexpected rupture at just past the halfway point, the rest of the film takes place in a village where Yusuke taught for a while and became acquainted with most of the inhabitants. The supernatural aspects here are most apparent, featuring a hole where the dead purportedly pass from the underworld to humanity (an idea shot down by Yusuke) and a conversation between Mizuki and her dead father, but Kurosawa ultimately leaves this all behind, focusing on the love of the central couple before things must inevitably come to an end. It is, in the end, an unbearably romantic movie, reserved but inexorable, and above all beguiling in the most mysterious and wonderful way.