Maborosi (1995) launched the feature film career of Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, until then a maker of television documentaries only. Unlike many first efforts that must settle for “promising” status, Maborosi emerged from Koreeda’s skilful hands a confidently realised drama that marked its director as a formal master of the medium. Almost immediately Koreeda was recognised as one of the leading directors in the 90s movement later to be known as the “New Japanese New Wave.”1

Maborosi is based on a work of fiction by the award-winning novelist Miyamoto Teru, but so spare is the film’s plot that few would guess at a novelistic source. In fact, Maborosi has more than one source: In characterization, theme, and emotional involvement, Koreeda’s previous work as a documentarist supplied notable influences. After university, Koreeda had worked for the television production company, TV Man Union, where he served as an assistant director filming news and documentary stories before getting the chance to make his own nonfiction films. Koreeda’s documentaries were remarkable for the sympathy they showered on their subjects and for the engaged response they clearly aimed at eliciting from their viewers.

His documentary subjects included a doomed AIDS patient (August Without Him, 1994); a government official who had committed suicide following his department’s refusal to authorize funds needed for his disbursement of welfare assistance to poor clients (However…, 1991); and a young father who had tragically lost his ability to make new memories as a result of medical maltreatment and wrong-headed government policy (Without Memory, 1996). In Koreeda’s documentary phase can be found the seeds of themes that would fill his future films: memory, mortality, and the sense of loss.

For Maborosi, one of Koreeda’s documentaries exerted an even more explicit influence: in filming However…, Koreeda had been touched by the enduring grief experienced by the wife of a man who had committed suicide. This emotional impact supplied part of the creative motivation to make Maborosi, the story of Yumiko (Makiko Esumi), a young, happily married woman with a husband and baby who has recurring dreams about a childhood event from which she has never recovered: the disappearance of her elderly grandmother. One night her husband leaves the house on an errand – his parting act is to make his wife laugh with a funny walk – and inexplicably kills himself by walking on railroad tracks before an oncoming train. Yumiko is traumatized for several years, but attempts to break out of the spell of her husband’s suicide through an arranged marriage to a widower with a young daughter. Yumiko and her son depart their home in Osaka on a train that takes them north to their new home on the Noto peninsula. Their small village is sparsely populated but majestically dominated by the Sea of Japan. Tamio (Takashi Naito), the new husband, is easy to like; so are his daughter and elderly father. Slowly, under the soothing monotony of Japanese family rituals, Yumiko achieves a recovery of sorts. Forced to return to Osaka for her brother’s wedding, she revisits her earlier life and is psychologically assaulted once again by memory and loss. Back home in her small Noto village, her relapse is unmistakable. The climax of her suffering occurs when she approaches a stranger’s funeral pyre at the edge of the sea in a long, stunning shot that underscores the moment’s dramatic gravity.

Maborosi is essentially a quiet film. The pace is slow. The camera is static – actual movements can be counted on one hand; it is also shy, always keeping a respectful distance from its subjects; there are virtually no close-ups in the film. Often – very often –  the camera lingers over an uninhabited space almost to the point of discomfort. (Some critics reported reaching that point in their reviews at the time of Maborosi’s initial release, but these notices were far outnumbered by the positive responses.) In a stylistic technique that perhaps owes something to Koreeda’s documentary background, only available light is used, even for interiors, leaving both characters and sets barely visible at times, as though smothered by darkness.

The film’s stately movement and family scenes suggested the influence of Ozu to many commentators. In fact, Maborosi’s link to Ozu is not especially strong. Despite its formal composition, Koreeda’s dark, ungenerous interior imagery is far removed from Ozu’s busy frames. Koreeda himself objected to the descried debt to Ozu, claiming closer kinship to Japanese director Mikio Naruse and  Britain’s Ken Loach (possibly for a perceived self-effacing humanism).2

The striking nighttime funeral sequence near the end of the film, in which both Yumiko and the audience learn the meaning of the film’s title, reveals that Maborosi’s style has served its theme. It is there we realise that it is not only the memory of her husband’s suicide that has tyrannised Yumiko’s consciousness, but its mystery. The scant dialogue of the scene is dominated by Yumiko’s agonised “Why? Why?” The attentive viewer might then recall that the same question began the film in connection with Yumiko’s guilt-ridden loss of her grandmother. In fact, mystery has dominated the picture; the darkness, the distance, the unsettling longueurs of lengthy shots that have kept us seeking explanations: all of these cause viewers to identify with the heroine’s mental experience of trying to understand life’s enigmas.

Heroine, not hero. In assigning this task to Yumiko, Koreeda upends the cultural cliché that it is men who ask the big questions, while women deal chiefly with the issues of the heart. Yumiko’s demand for answers from life marks her as a protagonist as Sophoclean as Oedipus, as Shakesperean as Hamlet; it comfortably lends the film to a feminist reading. But more importantly, in inviting the viewer to share Yumiko’s agon, Koreeda has drawn us all into the mysteries that lie at the heart of existence. Mystery, Koreeda indirectly suggests in Maborosi, lies at the heart of cinema as well, in a strange and moving place. This astonishing debut film transports its audience to a spiritual zone most of us visit all too infrequently.

 

Maborosi (1995 Japan 110 mins)

Prod Co: TV Man Union, Inc.  Prod: Naoe Gozu  Dir: Hirokazu Koreeda  Scr:  Ogita Yoshisa   Phot: Nakabori Masao  Ed: Tomoyo Oshima  Prod Des: Kyoko Heya  Mus: Chen Ming-Chang

Cast: Makiko Esumi, Takashi Naitoh, Tadanobu Asano, Gohki Kashiyama, Naomi Watanabe, Akira Emoto

 

Endnotes

  1. Arthur Nolletti, Jr., “Introduction: Kore-eda Hirokazu, director at a crossroads,” Film Criticism 35 (Winter 2010/Spring 2011): p. 2.
  2. Peter Bradshaw, “Hirokazu Koreeda: ‘They compare me to Ozu. But I’m closer to Ken Loach’,” The Guardian, 21 May 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/may/21/hirokazu-kore-director-our-little-sister-interview

About The Author

Joseph Sgammato has written for Sight and Sound, The Wordsworth Circle, The College Language Association Journal, and other publications. He teaches English and Film at Westchester Community College, a division of the State University of New York, in Valhalla, New York and lives in Norwalk, Connecticut.