Maborosi 幻の光 (Maboroshi no hikari) Illusion [1995] • Japan

Continuing my exploration of Hirokazu Koreeda. This is another sad and gentle, lyrical film dealing with the themes of loss, death, and the soul. You have to be in the mood to let a film just float by, or wash over you in lilting waves to appreciate Maborosi. A couple of art house film techniques Koreeda employs might frustrate some viewers. One is the use of extremely long shots, in terms of time to a degree but mostly in terms of distance. His camera doesn't always foreground the focus of a scene but instead pulls back and observes it from afar. Sometimes very far. The second thing is that, with only a few exceptions, you never get a really good look at the faces of the actors, an aspect all the more remarkable given Koreeda's casting a fashion model in her film debut as the main protagonist. There is no vanity in this film. It's all bare naked emotion and gorgeous photography.

The film centers on Yumiko, played by Makiko Esumi the fashion model, whose husband apparently commits suicide by walking into an oncoming train three months after their first child is born. Koreeda establishes quickly, and beautifully, at the beginning of the film a very genuine and loving relationship between the couple so the viewer shares in Yumiko's confusion and pain in not knowing why he would kill himself. After a period of mourning Yumiko agrees to an arranged marriage and moves from Osaka with her son to a small fishing village where her new husband, a widower with a young daughter, has lived all his life. There are a few scenes which suggest Yumiko might have found happiness again but it doesn't last. The haunting inexplicability of her first husband's death is too strong for her to escape. The scene where Yumiko finally and completely breaks downs is framed and captured perfectly, but it's shot from about three hundred yards away.

The whole thing is more like a painting than a narrative film. The camera hardly ever moves. People don't say much and plot isn't really part of the equation. One thing I usually insist on when watching these slow-burn character studies with minimal dialog is access to the character's interior. What are they thinking and feeling? The most expressive entrance to someone's interior is their eyes, but as I've mentioned Koreeda shoots the film in such away we hardly know what the characters look like, let alone are we able to look into their eyes. Something else happens. We may not get a sense of what Yumiko is thinking or feeling but we have great sympathy for her. Her despair and inconsolable suffering are clearly shown.

Maborosi is the work of an artist, not someone with an interest in selling theater tickets. Koreeda's passion is exploring light and color and composition, and in exploring the themes of loss, death, and the nature of the soul. Yes, that's a polite way of saying a lot of people will find the film boring. So be warned. For those who like this kind of thing, and you know who you are, this is one of the good ones. It is so full of magnificently composed photography it will take your breath away.

Maboroshi is a Japanese term for illusion or mirage, and is often used in the tales of fishermen to describe a light that tempts them, without explanation, further out to sea. Maboroshi is the explanation given to Yumiko as to why her husband may have walked into the path of an oncoming train.

Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring: Makiko Esumi, Takashi Naitô, Tadanobu Asano, Gohki Kashiyama, Naomi Watanabe

Roger Ebert

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