Maborosi (Maboroshi no hikari)
Japan (1995) Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda
Why? Always the key question in any situation and one that rarely yields a satisfactory answer. Without this vital piece of information, it is often difficult to move forward from a troubling or vexing scenario, leaving many with an ominous shadow of mystery hanging over their lives.
Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) is a young wife in Osaka enjoying life with her baby son Yuichi and husband Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano) until Ikuo’s sudden death, supposedly by jumping in front of a train. Yumiko is devastated by the news but more so by the fact she thought Ikuo was as happy as she was, and enters into a downward spiral of depression, needing her mother’s help to raise Yuichi.
A few years later when Yuichi (Gohki Kashima) is a little older, Yumiko enters into an arranged marriage to widower Tamio (Takashi Naito), who has a daughter of his own, Tomoko (Naomi Watanabe) but lives in small coastal town, meaning having to relocate for a fresh start. The marriage is going well until Yumiko makes a return visit to Osaka and finds herself still haunted by the mystery of Ikuo’s death.
Maborosi is the debut film from Hirokazu Kore-eda, a filmmaker among the few whose latest works I anticipate greatly and is rarely disappointed. Over the past two decades, Kore-eda has gone from strength to strength as a writer and director with his peerless life affirming family dramas, earning a reputation as the heir apparent to Yasujiro Ozu as Japan’s master of the slice-of-life chronicle, with a few curious but nonetheless engaging detours into other areas here and there.
There are flickers of the Kore-eda that we all know and revere today in this first time outing but that is all they are – flickers. Not every artist finds their voice and style right from the start, so it is folly to expect as much even from someone with Kore-eda’s lofty reputation. Therefore, it is best to Maborosi as if Kore-eda is a new name to you, just as audiences did in 1995.
Based on the novel Maboroshi no Hikari (lit trans. phantasmic light) by Teru Miyamoto with the screenplay by Yoshihisa Ogita, the actual plot is rather thin, serving as a loose framework for things happening rather than being driven by actions or occurrences. It opens with a young Yumiko chasing after her grandmother as she wanders out of the house, claiming she is going back home, and never returns.
Jumping forward we meet adult Yumiko, giddily in love with Ikuo – she follows him to work and watches him through the window simply because – and overjoyed at being a mother. History repeats itself when, just like Yumiko’s grandmother, Ikuo fails to come home one night, only learning of his death via a shamefully clumsy visit from the police asking her to identify what is left of the body.
According to witnesses, Ikuo was walking along the train tracks and ignored the horns from the train and the shouts from the platforms to move out of the way. The only thing left of note was a small bell Yumiko has given Ikuo which she decides to keep as a last memento. But, the question remains why Ikuo decided to end it all, if indeed this was his intention, a conundrum Yumiko can’t even begin to decipher.
Spoiler alert – the script doesn’t want to give us any answers either. The best we get is Tamio referencing a theory his fisherman father has about the calling of the sea which explains the film’s title. Unless I’ve misinterpreted it, Tamio is perhaps suggesting it was meant to be, maybe even fate as it brought him and Yumiko together. However, at this point they had just argued over the bell Yumiko kept, and the truth behind Tamio’s decision to remarry.
If this sounds like a Kore-eda type scenario, the caveat is nothing feels resolved, and the gaps left by this pose more questions as it pertains to Yumiko being able to let go of Ikuo’s death when she still has no explanation for it. But, the type of woman she is – passive, dutiful, uxorial – implies Yumiko is simply going to settle for this, as she has a family again, and young Yuichi not only has a big sister but also a father figure.
Running 10 minutes shy of two hours, there is a lot of meandering in this film, with the actual story relevant for only a fraction of it. Kore-eda has gone for a visual atmosphere that has more tangible arthouse qualities that he later films, opting to let shots linger for more than they should, occasionally keeping the audio running, creating some oddly disjointed moments.
One unusual facet is the lack of close-up shots, with our first proper look at Yumiko not arriving until 56 minutes in, otherwise the camera is kept wide for most of the film, sometimes close by, others quite a distance away. The photography and composition are stunning, providing many shots that could easily be extracted and presented as artful tableau without context, yet still inspire the viewer to conjure up a powerful story.
Makiko Esumi also makes her debut here, and we wonder if Kore-eda was ever to have a regular muse like some directors, it would have been her. Her slender frame lends itself to making melancholic Yumiko appear weather worn and lost, yet the contrary radiance of happy Yumiko in the earlier scenes is infectiously sweet. One Kore-eda trait already evident is how he let the two youngsters act naturally, making their few scenes together a rare joyful highlight.
No doubt I am alone in this but Maborosi didn’t resonate with me as much as I hoped it would. Perhaps I didn’t look deep enough into the visual symbolism to appreciate the meaning but for me, it needed a less sparse narrative. However, I am glad I have seen it and Kore-eda’s potential is evident in this nascent first effort.