1996, NR, 110 min. Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. Starring Makiko Esumi, Takashi Naitoh, Tadanobu Asano, Gohki Kashiyama, Maomi Watanabe, Matsuka Sakura.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 7, 1997
The concept of loss, and the sorrow that shadows it, is not what you’d call an uncommon theme in films, but rarely is it handled with such uncommon eloquence as it is in Maborosi. Based on the short story "Maborosi no Hikari (Illusory Light)" by noted Japanese author Teru Miyamoto, Kore-eda’s adaptation follows the trials and tribulations of Yumiko (Esumi), a young married woman whose life seems almost imperceptibly haunted by the spirit of death. As the film opens, Yumiko is awakened from a dream in which she finds her grandmother leaving the village to go die in her native village. Pleading with her to stay, the young dream-Yumiko cannot fathom the concept of such a loss and weeps inconsolably. The dream, as it turns out, is a recurring one, and upon waking, Yumiko mentions this in passing to her husband, Ikuo (Asano), a buoyant, self-deprecating fellow who seems to be the ideal husband. Along with their infant son Yuichi (Kashiyama), Yumiko seems to lead an ideal life. Her husband works in a nearby factory, and when his bicycle is stolen, he cheerfully steals another from the wealthy neighborhood up the road. At night, the two fall asleep to the sound of the nearby trains hauling packaged goods to the major cities. All is bliss, until the night when two police officers come to the door to announce that Ikuo is dead – struck by a train in what appears to be an act of suicide. Yumiko is shattered, and spends the next several years alone until, with the help of a local matchmaker, she falls for Tamio (Naitoh), a resident of a nearby fishing village. She moves in with Tamio and his daughter Tomoko, and once again her life enters into a period of happy stasis, until she is called back to her former village to attend her brother’s wedding. Once there, the reality of her former husband’s death comes rushing back, filling her head with thoughts of horror and blinding her to the newfound happiness in her life. It’s very difficult to relay the full measure of Kore-eda’s touchingly morbid film through a synopsis. Like so many other classic Japanese films, the images the director chooses to illustrate his points are far more illuminating than the story itself. Indeed, the amount of dialogue in Maborosi is practically negligible, and the film instead relies on the haunting sounds of lonely train whistles, eerie bicycle bells, and the lapping of the ocean waves to convey the deep, soulless aura of loss that permeates the film from beginning to end. In this respect, Maborosi could almost be taken as a sort of Japanese gothic. Cinematographer Masao Nakabori’s stunning use of light – and the absence thereof – also plays into the story: The film uses natural lighting exclusively, eschewing staged settings as often as possible and keeping some nighttime scenes entirely in the dark, an eerie mirror to Yumiko’s wounded heart.