Maborosi (1995) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): The remarkable debut work from Hirokazu Kore-eda

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“Maborosi”, the first feature film of Hirokazu Kore-eda, is a haunting work of serene beauty and aching sadness. Phlegmatically observing how its heroine keeps going on with her life which is irreversibly changed by one devastating incident, the movie intimately and thoughtfully depicts her somber emotional journey along the slow but perpetual passage of time, and it is often quite mesmerizing as presenting a number of sublime moments which powerfully remind us of those everlasting matters of life and death.

In the beginning, the movie opens with a seemingly simple sequence which eventually turns out to be what its heroine, Yumiko (Makiko Esumi), occasionally dreams of. When Yumiko was a young adolescent girl, her senile grandmother frequently tried to leave their family residence just because she wished to go to her hometown and then die there. On one day, she tried again, but she never came back this time, and Yumiko has been haunted by her very last moment with her grandmother. No matter how much Yumiko tried to stop her grandmother, grandmother adamantly insisted on going back to her hometown, and there was nothing Yumiko could do except watching her grandmother walking away from her.

Around the end of this sequence, the movie shows us a bit about the growing relationship between Yumiko and a boy who lived near her family residence, and then we see them living together as a young married couple several years later. Although they live in one of tiny apartments above a tailor’s shop, Yumiko and Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano) are fine and happy with their little baby son, and we observe more of the mutual affection between them through several intimate scenes including the one involved with a stolen bicycle. Yes, it is wrong to steal that bicycle, but Ikuo and Yumiko feel amused and romantic as newly painting that bicycle together, and we come to smile a little as they joyously ride that bicycle together during one free evening.

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However, Ikuo dies on one day, and this tragic happening devastates and disorients Yumiko. When she saw Ikuo for the last time during that afternoon, he looked all right as usual, but she is told that it is quite possible that her husband killed himself. For some unknown reason, he was walking on a railroad during that evening, and, according to a witness, he did not even try to save himself right before being hit by a train.

While her husband’s motive for suicide remains elusive, Yumiko carries on her life as receiving some help from others around her. Her mother stays with her for a while, and she takes care of Yumiko’s young son as Yumiko is still mired in her grief. A few years later, Yumiko is about to marry a widower around her age thanks to her neighbor’s considerate matchmaking, and she and her young son soon leave for a small fishing village where her new husband lives along with his father and the daughter from his previous marriage. Although the village does not look exactly cheery at first, it gradually becomes the second home for Yumiko and her young son as they get more accustomed to it, and her new husband and his family do not have any particular problem in accepting them as their new family members.

Leisurely moving from one small episodic moment to another, the movie slowly establishes its tranquil atmosphere surrounding its heroine and other characters around her. While usually sticking to its static position, cinematographer Masao Nakabori’s camera mostly observes characters and objects from the distance, but the subtle visual touches generated from precise scene composition constantly engage us, and we come to reflect more on small details in the film such as a certain little object left by Ikuo, which later functions as a painful reminder of what still lingers on Yumiko’s mind.

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The overall meditative mood surrounding the film is reminiscent of the works of Yasujirō Ozu, who consistently focused on life and family throughout his exceptional filmmaking career filled with great works such as “Tokyo Story” (1953) and “Floating Weeds” (1959). Like Ozu, Kore-eda has steadily focused on the same themes as reflected by many of his notable works including “Still Walking” (2008) and “Like Father, Like Son” (2013), and their thoughtful sensitivity is not so far from Ozu’s works.

When I happened to watch “After Life” (1999) during one hot summer day of 2006, I did not know much about Kore-eda, but I was touched a lot by its quiet but powerful drama about afterlife, and that was the starting point for me. While I admired his stellar family drama films ranging from “Nobody knows” (2004) to “After the Storm” (2016), I also appreciated his minor works such as “Hana” (2006), “Air Doll” (2009), and “The Third Murder” (2017) to some degrees, and I was certainly delighted to see when he recently had another artistic/critical success thanks to his latest film “Shoplifters” (2018), which deservedly won the Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival several months ago.

Although more than 20 years have passed since it came out, “Maborosi”, which was adapted by Yoshihisa Ogita from Teru Miyamoto’ acclaimed short story of the same name, remains as an exceptional debut work. It is still captivating for me to watch how the movie eventually culminates to its emotional climax and then makes an effortless finishing touch in the end, and, considering its recent Blu-ray release in US, I think you should really watch this small gem as soon as possible.

Sidenote: The title of the movie means ‘illusionary light’ in Japanese.

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