Maborosi: A cinematic phantom

Last Updated: Mon, Jun 10, 2019 10:13 hrs

Hirokazu Koreeda follows the story of a young widow who continues to search for meaning in a lonely world.

Maborosi loosely means 'vision' or 'illusion', a point that is not made explicit until the very end of this beautifully crafted 1995 Japanese language-movie. The debut motion picture of director Hirokazu Koreeda, Maborosi is a sublime motion picture made in the style of Yasujiro Ozu.

A film of astonishing beauty and sadness, the story follows Yumiko (Makiko Esumi), a woman with a newborn who is devastated when her husband and childhood sweetheart, Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano), commits suicide for no apparent reason by walking in front of a train.

Time passes and Yumiko picks up the pieces of her life in the wake of a sudden tragedy. But at her core looms a great nothingness, a great unanswered question.

Several years pass, and a kindly neighbour who doubles as a match-maker finds Yumiko a young widower, Tamio (Takashi Naito), who lives with his young daughter in an remote fishing village.

At first, the marriage seems to work successfully. However, the mystery of Ikuo's suicide hovers over the couple. Was his death a deliberate choice to create a better future for Yumiko? Or did he simply walk on the railway tracks in a trance of inattention?

Makiko Esumi is the star of the film. Her tall frame, slender and solemn, brings considerable stillness to the screen. Her character speaks little and is often seen seated, absorbed in thought.

The films selection of contrasts is also telling. The contrast of tranquillised adults with the unalloyed mirth of the children, the contrast of large urban sprawl with the decrepit coastal town, all add to the films beauty. They in some sense come to represent the titular illusory gleam.

Maborosi is quiet film with deliberate pace and static camerawork that maintains a dignified distance from its characters with virtually no close-ups in the film. In an aesthetic call, perhaps rooted in Koreeda's work as a documentarian, the film is often lit only through available light, leaving characters and their surroundings in limited visibility. The film feels like it is asphyxiated in darkness.

The scriptural sparseness is a far cry from the more dialogue heavy screenplays of Koreeda's more recent oeuvre. In Maborosi , empathy is often derived by the absence of words; this gives the viewer time to judge the impact new places have on the characters. Under Koreeda's hands the camera does not move, but regards. Shots begin in or end on empty rooms with the characters speaking whilst seated adjacent. There are many long takes and few close ups. The exercise is to reveal the characters' predicament in all their absurdity.

The film has a funereal pacing and makes similar demands on the viewer's patience. But its rewards are manifold as well. Koreeda's ability to express his heroine's internal struggles amidst landscapes that threaten to swallow the characters whole is exceptional. Maborosi is a worthwhile cinematic experience if only, but not solely, for its unique visual approach. Its breathtaking landscapes photography and Esumi's austere performance, more than compensate for the gloomy pacing.

Koreeda has a gift for observing life, amassing simple, apparently mundane scenes into a moving reflection on the helplessness of trying to explain the ineffable.

This review is part of a series titled 'Cinematheque' centered around canvassing lesser-known films.

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