Editor’s Note: When referencing people’s names, the writer kept the original Japanese name order where applicable. (e.g., Kore-eda Hirokazu instead of Hirokazu Kore-eda).
There is a black screen. The image of a young girl fixing her hair in a hand mirror fades in. The room is rather dark, but we can make out her figure. A bicycle bell rings. The girl turns to look behind her and, through an almost-boarded-up window, a young boy in white rides by. The girl gets up. Now at her front door, she watches as the boy rides away down an alley.
An old woman walks alone down an alley. As she turns the corner, the young girl chases into the alley after her. By the time the girl catches up to the old woman they are on a bridge. The girl asks the old woman to come home with her. The old woman says that she wants to die at home. She walks off into the horizon and the young girl stares after her.
The girl is looking out the window again. A man and a woman call her into the kitchen for dinner. It’s not her fault, they tell her. It sounds like the old woman is never going to come back.
It is night. The girl is back on the bridge. She walks to where she last saw the old woman. She stands there, staring into the voided horizon.
On her way home, she hears a bell. The young boy is coming around a corner with his bike. The two pause and look at each other from across the street. The screen fades to black. Two voices talk in the blackness, and we are told that this was a dream.
This is how Kore-eda Hirokazu’s film “Maborosi” (1995, released in Japanese as “Maboroshi no Hikari”) opens. Although we do not know it yet, we have just been given the symbolic vocabulary needed to parse the film. These symbols – the bell, the window, the bike, the blackness and the absence – permeate the film up until the end credits. The ways they are placed into conversation and remembrance with each other will produce the skeleton of meaning that the rest of the film’s flesh forms around.
With this said, it is hard to pin down what exactly “Maborosi” is – both its tone and subject waver throughout the film. What is certain, however, is that it is a film interested in death. Aside from the priming death/disappearance of the Yumiko’s (the young girl from the beginning, – played by Esumi Makiko – who we follow as an adult) grandmother, there is at least one other major death lying at the film’s core – that of Ikuo, the boy from the beginning. Ikuo is the first man Yumiko marries, and it is with him that she has her only child, giving birth only a few months before he dies.
It is not helpful, however, to say that this is a film about death. Although death is part of its texture, what “Maborosi” is more interested in are the peculiar unknowables that lie before and after death (as well as any other event). What comes to possess Yumiko as the film progresses is not that her husband died, but that he died without an apparent reason. Death, in “Maborosi,” is unnervingly casual.
This dynamic is produced in part by the film’s stylistic delivery. The average length of a shot in “Maborosi'' is perhaps somewhere between 15 and 25 seconds, with several shots lasting upwards of a minute. Coupled with the length is the fact that (aside from one scene) the camera never moves and is often placed at a distance from its subjects. The effect is a kind of unrelenting realism. We watch as characters navigate the mundanities of everyday life in real-time. The weight of a singular moment or event is measured against the diffusing veil of sustained existence.
Importantly, however, is the fact that this is not a film only about death. It is also about the inexplicable life that we are endowed with. While death, in its suddenness, draws immediate attention and generates a lingering trail of grief, the film also explores the strange ways humans are able to move beyond their losses. While Ikuo’s death is painful, what is ultimately more shocking is the fact that the pain eventually recedes. We think at first that this event will come to define Yumiko and place her in its shadow, and it does, until one day it doesn’t.
When we look at “Maborosi,” we see death, but then we also see life – a new kind of life, one built by a budding rejuvenation. The first image we see in the film is a boarded-up window cloistered in the darkness. The last one is a window sitting warmly open, being hugged by a blanket of sunlight.
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Contact opinions and column writer Henry Skalbeck at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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