Maborosi (Japan, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In an era when MTV-inspired film making techniques have begun to dominate motion pictures, its refreshing to see something with the simple, unhurried style of Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda's feature debut, Maborosi. This film, which is really little more than a series of images connected by a bare-bones plot, explores the evolution of one woman's emotion as she ponders the unexplained (and seemingly inexplicable) death of her first husband.

Kore-eda, along with cinematographer Masao Nakabori, has meticulously constructed each shot. There are no pans or sweeps, and close-ups are used judiciously. Most scenes are photographed from a medium distance, with the action taking place through the lens of a stationary camera. There are frequent shots of empty streets and alleys, and the composition of shadow and light is carefully considered. Kore-eda has obviously thought through the visual presentation of every second of Maborosi's 110-minute running time.

The film opens with a brief prologue during which a young Japanese girl watches her beloved grandmother leave home, never to return. On that same day, she meets the boy who will eventually become her husband. When we next encounter her, Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) is twenty years older. She's married to Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano) and has a 3-month old son. She is content, and her happiness is shown through a playfulness that permeates every action. Then, one night, everything changes. Ikuo commits suicide by walking in front of a train. Yumiko is plunged into an extended period of mourning from which she only begins to emerge when she re-marries, this time to a widower named Tamio (Takashi Naitoh). To be with Tamio, Yumiko leaves the city of Osaka to live in a tiny fishing village. But she is a haunted woman, and her fear of intimacy keeps her emotionally isolated from her new husband.

Kore-eda has chosen not to illustrate Yumiko's emotions through traditionally melodramatic methods. In fact, it's rare that she sheds a tear, although the face of model-turned-actress Makiko Esumi is certainly capable of expressing a surprising range of feeling. Instead of relying on the character, however, Kore-eda uses Yumiko's surroundings. When she's on the way to the police station to identify her husband's body, the weather weeps for her, streaking the car windows with rain. After Ikuo's death, the director, much like Ingmar Bergman, uses spatial relationships to highlight her emotional isolation. She is often distanced from others, frequently appearing alone and shrouded by shadow. Towards the end of Maborosi, there is a memorable sequence when Yumiko, depicted in silhouette, is set far apart from everyone else. Kore-eda also uses certain sounds to contribute to the sense of solitude -- the crashing of the waves and the roar of the wind, in particular.

There are times when Yumiko's icy shield thaws, but such instances are rare. Questions of fate and mortality overwhelm her. The weight of responsibility for a death she could not have prevented paralyzes her spirit. She is forever puzzling out the riddle of why Ikuo killed himself, not recognizing that some riddles in life have no answer. The mysteries of fate are not ours to control or understand.

Maborosi is a worthwhile movie experience not because it ventures into virgin territory, but because its presentation is so precise and unique. Having seen this movie, I can't think of a more effective format than the one chosen by Kore-eda. This is a haunting cinematic portrait, where the almost-poetic visual images and their associated emotional meaning hold the viewer enraptured.

Maborosi (Japan, 1995)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Mature Themes, Brief Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: In Japanese with subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1