Why I Love… #126: Maborosi

Year: 1995

Director: Hirokazu Kore-Eda

Stars: Makiko Esumi, Takashi Naitô, Tadanobu Asano

Maborosi – Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s narrative debut following a series of documentaries – might take the prize for the most dour film in this series. In some respects. The colour palette and thematic meat are both grim and mournful. It takes place beneath permanently overcast skies. Its characters favour black attire and sometimes become lost in the dim interiors they inhabit. One of the poetic phrases from Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides that has always stuck with me is, “a room dim at noon”. That’s how Maborosi feels. And yet, that doesn’t equate to lifelessness here. Indeed, its an achingly humane piece of work and one of my favourite movies. Certainly in my top three Kore-Eda.

Most of the things that constitute traditional drama are absent from Maborosi. The film’s main events – birth, death, romance and marriage – all take place off screen, in the spaces in between the scenes. We’re left with the poetry of the ordinary days. The mezzanine moments in life. Kore-Eda shows us that it is perhaps the negative space that makes up the more monumental part of our time on Earth. He’s a filmmaker who has always worked with a handsome, tasteful amount of restraint, but Maborosi is perhaps his most pared-back of all.

Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) and Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano) are married with an infant son. They live in the city. It’s an ordinary existence. One day Ikuo roguishly steals a bicycle and the two of them paint it green as a cover-up. Then, one day, Yumiko receives news that Ikuo has died. He’s been hit by a train and seemingly made no effort to get out of it’s oncoming path. She is devastated. Cut to three years later and much has changed. Yumiko has recently remarried a widower named Tamio (Takashi Naitô). Her son Yuichi (Gohki Kashiyama) is now a toddler. Together they leave the city – by train – and go to live with Tamio in his sleepy, coastal hometown. As Yumiko grows accustomed to rural life and the power of the sea, both adults reflect on their lost partners and their newly calibrated lives.

That’s more or less it. But Maborosi (which means “phantasmic light”) isn’t about narrative momentum so much as it is about capturing certain moods and feelings. It’s a particularly introverted piece of work. Characters sit or stand in tableaux and Kore-Eda comfortably leaves them to their interior lives. Thoughts are expressed sometimes, but not often. There’s a sense that these people are haunted by those that they’ve lost, but not in the terms of spectral manifestations. At least, not in the main. Soon after Ikuo’s death, Kore-Eda affords us one of the film’s many breathtaking and painterly compositions. In it, the shimmer from a bowl of water reflects onto the dark wall of Yukiko’s apartment and gives the impression of an apparition hanging over the family. It’s as close as the film comes to the supernatural. It’s absolutely beautiful and representative of the liminal and meditative nature of the whole.

If it sounds dreary and boring, I’ve not yet properly underscored how exquisite the photography is throughout. In collaboration with DP Masao Nakabori, Kore-Eda’s film is as much about how he shows us things as what those things are. Complimenting this sense of a film about the spaces between events, Kore-Eda asks us to contemplate the spaces people inhabit. The geographies of life. If that title has any bearing on the piece as a whole, it’s how light touches not only people but objects. The very essence of filmmaking and photography.

Kore-Eda is a director who is often (and sometimes lazily) compared with the great master Yasujiro Ozu. For Maborosi, this is the aspect in which such comparisons hold-up, but where one might also argue a demarcation. Ozu would often punctuate drama with such stillness. With deftly lit moments of emptiness. But for Ozu these moments were to mark time or they acted as transitional pauses, to allow the viewer to digest and move on. For Kore-Eda they’re as important a piece of the whole as any other. 

One might assume, given the amount of “emptiness” in the film, that it would drag, but the opposite is true. Maborosi flashes by, it’s melancholy rhythms creating a kind of appeasement in the viewer. A kind of waking hypnosis. We’re lulled by his film and its expressive moods as each slow-moving scene asks us to feel something ever-so-slightly different on its muted scale. The image of Yumiko sat in a bus shelter, all but obscured in its shade, is as telling of her state of mind as any painful diatribe a lesser filmmaker would have her utter to convey the same. 

In the last half hour of the film, Yumiko follows a funeral procession along a coastal trail as the wind whips a light snowfall up into the air and, in one long-held still shot, Kore-Eda tracks their path against the coastline from the far left of screen to the far right. The horizon is a scored line less than a third of the way up the frame. In a film that is often marked by quietude, the emotive score from Ming-chang Chen is allowed to flourish. Perhaps Yumiko has become a ghost herself, haunting the procession, as though following it might allow her to understand Ikuo’s reasons for suicide and therefore grant her access to the next phase of her life. There’s no reason to believe that Yumiko hasn’t fallen in love with Tamio and her new circumstances, but Maborosi is about recognising that, sometimes, we live in the past and the present at the same time. The film’s opening flashback, in which Yumiko reminisces on losing her grandmother, sets out its stall in this regard.

Kore-Eda is one of the finest filmmakers in the world. He’d go on to give us such masterworks as After LifeNobody Knows, Still Walking, Like Father Like SonOur Little Sister and Shoplifters. He’ll create more in the future (even if his current forays abroad haven’t quite fulfilled this promise yet). Maborosi is as remarkable as any of these. A bruised, sad and soulful expression of sorrow, one that is lifted out of the doldrums because it recognises the beauty in even these lows. It doesn’t wallow so much as it exhales.

At the end of the movie – and without making a fuss out of it – Kore-Eda lets the sunshine in.

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