[The following review contains MINOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
The opening scene of Kaz I Kiriya’s From the End of the World—an ambitious, audacious sci-fi epic that evokes equal parts The Wizard of Oz, Inception, and 12 Monkeys—immediately establishes its haunting atmosphere. The setting is feudal Japan—probably the Sengoku Era, judging by the war-torn landscape, though the exact time period remains ambiguous. A young, newly orphaned peasant girl creeps through dense foliage, evading the barbaric soldiers that wiped out her entire village. High-contrast black-and-white cinematography reduces the world to a sea of eerie, expressionistic shadows, as thick and dark as smoke or oil. The only color is red—from splashes of blood to the garb of the hooded samurai commanding the indiscriminate slaughter—and even that is dull and washed-out.
Suddenly, the story leaps forward to the year 2030, where we’re introduced to Hana, a high school senior struggling to financially support herself following the recent death of her grandmother. With graduation looming, she’s sick of people asking about her plans for the future; she already works multiple jobs just to cover the bills and put food on the table. Personal goals and aspirations are luxuries that she simply cannot afford; right now, merely surviving day-to-day takes priority. Here, too, the visual style elegantly externalizes our protagonist’s internal conflict. Long, continuous takes convey the relentlessness of the hardships that she must face on a regular basis; the camera, meanwhile, is often positioned uncomfortably close to the characters, with lenses that warp and distort both their features and the space surrounding them, communicating a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment.
Gradually, the connection between these two seemingly unrelated narrative threads becomes clear: the “flashbacks” represent Hana’s dreams—which are, she soon discovers, actually manifestations of mankind’s collective unconscious. With the aid of a mysterious government agency, she learns to enter and influence this alternate plane of existence—an ability that allows her to literally rewrite history and defy destiny. The editing (which is reminiscent of Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, and Paprika) brilliantly reflects this supernatural twist: every cut blurs the boundary between fantasy and reality, seamlessly transitioning from past to present and back again—thus creating the illusion of unbroken action that transcends linear chronology.
Although it’s obviously a technical marvel, the film’s central theme is what truly lingered in my memory as the end credits rolled. Contrary to its bleak subject matter—Hana, a steadfast cynic, genuinely believes that her mission to prevent the apocalypse is futile—From the End of the World is ultimately anti-nihilistic and anti-fatalistic. Sure, life is full of pain, suffering, and misfortune—but that, the movie argues, is no excuse for apathy, pessimism, and defeatism. Indeed, it should be a call to action: it’s up to each of us to care enough—about our planet, our fellow humans, and ourselves—to build a better tomorrow.