MABOROSI (Maboroshi no hikari) A Japan (110 mi) 1995 d: Hirokazu Kore-eda
A candidate for one of the most poetic and beautiful films ever made, a teardrop inside which all of one’s life can be examined again and again from differing perspectives, drawing parallels in structure and eloquence to Yasujirō Ozu and Hou Hsiao-hsien, as the motif of trains, telephone wires, tea kettles, and the use of medium shots are a constant, with no close-ups, retaining a respectful distance, evoking the fragility and overall quietness of Naomi Kawase’s SUZAKU (1997), which this film thematically mirrors, both dealing with memory and traumatic loss, while also recalling Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian) (1991), as each shot in this film feels perfectly chosen, composed with a meticulous eye by Masao Nakabori who favors shooting in natural light. If there were a director working today emulating this style, it might be Bi Gan, whose luminous works include 2016 Top Ten List #2 Kaili Blues (Lu bian ye can) (2015) and 2019 Top Ten List #6 Long Day's Journey Into Night (Di qiu zui hou de ye wan) (2018), particularly in the brightness of the colors red and green. This is a completely different tragedy, hauntingly sad, but also a nocturnal film with only brief glimpses of light, where there are reoccurring images whose significance takes on the importance of human characters. The film is a quiet, precise observation of one young woman’s spiritual odyssey recovering from her husband’s suicide, a moving and profound examination of her grief and the impact of death on the living, where Maborosi means illusion or mirage, though the Japanese title is more instructive, Maboroshi no Hikari (The Light of the Illusion). Screenwriter Yoshihisa Ogita adapted a 1978 short story by Teru Miyamoto, the first feature film by this director, working previously as a documentary filmmaker. The music by Taiwanese composer Chen Ming-chang (who also provided the score for several Hou Hsiao-hsien films) is hauntingly beautiful in what can only be described as one of the more tender and eloquently spiritual (Buddhist) film experiences ever, moods expressed with a variety of darkness and light, where a poetic emptiness and stillness prevail, which express the absence of life in the heroine, examining the relationship between the visible and the invisible, exteriors and interiors, from which all other activity and purpose comes, carefully revealing the flavor and texture of her everyday life.
The film opens in the town of Osaka where Yumiko, beautifully played by fashion model Makiko Esumi in her first acting experience, is initially seen as a small child running across a bridge trying to stop her senile grandmother from leaving, convinced she needs to return to her home town to die, leaving the child devastated and forever haunted about being unable to stop her. The theme is established right away and the bridge becomes one of the early reoccurring themes, a bridge of transport taking her grandmother across to the other side, to death. Then Yumiko sees an image of a boy her age sitting atop a bicycle, appearing for quite some time in a still light, and she whispers his name, followed by darkness on the screen for some 30 seconds. The name is whispered again, but this time (as if summoned from a dream) the boy is Yumiko’s husband Ikuo (an early appearance of the great Tadanobu Asano), who flashes on a lamp asking her to go back to bed, flicking the light back off again after gently reminding her, “I’m not the reincarnation of your grandmother.” The bicycle becomes another reoccurring theme, along with cars, buses, trains, boats, all modes and stations of transit, outside car noises heard from a darkened room, dimly lit stairs, and always a reoccurring theme of light, suggested by the everpresent kerosene lamp and light bulbs. She sits behind him riding his bicycle in the night, feeling comfortable and happy, even after he resorts to theft after his own bicycle was stolen, both seen happily painting it a new green color. One day, the husband returns the bicycle on his way to work, preferring instead to walk, seen carrying an umbrella as Yumiko follows him down the stairs, out the door, and watches him walk away, smiling and happy. But she never sees him again, as, without warning, he walks in front of a commuter train on his way home from work that night, leaving her alone with a 3-month old son, utterly devastated and confused, sitting in an empty room looking at photographs of their life together, spending years afterwards retreating from life. While grief is a central theme of the film, as it was in his earlier TV documentary HOWEVER… (1991), which similarly follows the repercussions of a suicide, yet here Yumiko is always filmed from a distance, never allowing interior access, which remains shrouded in mystery.
After the passage of time (all happening offscreen), a second marriage is arranged by a neighbor to Tamio (Takashi Naitō), a widower with a small daughter living with his elderly father (who rarely utters a word, often seen smoking alone) and most of the film examines this new life in the small, coastal town of Noto, a fishing village tucked under snowy mountains, actually shot on location in Wajima and Uniumachi on the northern tip of the Noto Peninsula facing the Sea of Japan (https://www.google.com/maps/place/Uniumachi,+Wajima,+Ishikawa+928-0065,+Japanfirstname.lastname@example.org,136.8518637,3a,75y,90t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1svAClo8jmtzYPZgrwBXjt7g!2e0!6s%2F%2Fgeo1.ggpht.com%2Fcbk%3Fpanoid%3DvAClo8jmtzYPZgrwBXjt7g%26output%3Dthumbnail%26cb_client%3Dsearch.gws-prod.gps%26thumb%3D2%26w%3D360%26h%3D120%26yaw%3D0%26pitch%3D0%26thumbfov%3D100!7i13312!8i6656!4m5!3m4!1s0x5ff12f111ba92311:0x4aefd0bc526d048f!8m2!3d37.3950548!4d136.8508654), arriving to an empty railway platform and a deserted station where no one is there to greet them. Her new husband apologizes profusely when he arrives late, blaming problems at work, eventually showing her off to the community. Images of a dark, empty room filled with shoes introduce viewers to the communal festivities of her wedding dinner filled with family and friends surrounding a long table, with plentiful serving of saki and the singing of songs. There is a wonderful scene of the couple making love on a hot afternoon, completely shadowed in darkness, yet it’s one of the few moments of happiness, ever so briefly revealed, as unanswered questions hover over their lives, including secrets and concealments about the profundity of Tamio’s love for his first wife, described by others as the love of his life, which was never revealed to Yumiko, played with tender grace and a delicate restraint by Esumi in a remarkable performance that barely contains her grief, continually retreating into an interior emotional landscape that defines the film, foregoing plot, mostly told through bold visual choices, using spectacular changes of seasons from winter to summer, demonstrating a meticulous blending of color, shadow, music, and sound effects. Haunted by Ikuo’s unexplained suicide, Yumiko grows obsessed by a small bell she gave him one day attached to his bicycle key, stirring up dreams and vivid flashbacks occurring while performing the mundane task of sweeping the stairs, invoking ways that loss alters us forever.
Nothing is wasted by this director, who values simplicity itself, creating a remarkably profound and contemplative film that simply glimmers in its own sublime beauty, creating something close to perfection, where the camera almost never moves, the editing is spare, accentuating sorrow through stillness, effectively revealing the barrenness of the human soul. Sitting alone in a small, darkened bus stop, the bus comes and goes, yet Yumiko remains fixed and immovable, revealing the stark originality of this filmmaker, spotting a Buddhist funeral procession off in the distance, with the sound of bells, all dressed in black, walking in single file, as the snow falls upon them in silence as they approach the ocean. Walking some distance behind, Yumiko joins the procession, silhouetted figures against a tumultuous ocean under a darkened sky, but remains apart, separated, and alone, using imagery reminiscent of Angelopoulos, providing a lingering meditation on death, wondering if mourning ever truly ends. In this hushed quiet of poetic transcendence, her husband searches for his missing wife in his car, driving along the shore, eventually spotting a lone figure standing next to the billowing flames of smoke from a funeral pyre, the smoke reaching up into the sky. As he approaches her standing by the ocean in a long shot, she turns to him, and they begin walking back, still apart, never joining. Breaking their silence, filled with heartbreak, she asks, “I just don't understand! Why did he kill himself? Why was he walking along the tracks? It just goes around and around in my head. Why do you think he did it?” Tamio calmly answers, “The sea has the power to beguile. Back when dad was fishing, he once saw a maborosi ⸺ a strange and beautiful light ⸺ far out to sea, and it would be shimmering in the distance, as if beckoning to him. I think it can happen to anyone.” In the light of a new day, utilizing another long shot, Tamio is patiently trying to teach her son how to ride a bicycle, holding the shot for a considerable length until it continues offscreen, where the entire town is framed with only the sounds of this small family experience. Yumiko sits next to the father-in-law on a porch overlooking the sea, and from a dark, empty room inside, a window reveals the ocean, a window to the soul where only from darkness may there be light.