There are a few magical film directors who I will turn to when I want a film I am guaranteed to be thoroughly satisfied by. Among them are Zhang Yimou, Edward Yang, Wong Kar-wai, Abbas Kiarostami, Theo Angelopoulos… and Hirokazu Kore-eda. Recently I had the pleasure of watching his fiction directorial debut, Maborosi (1995), for the first time, which has once again reignited my passion for his movies.
Of course, Kore-eda has much in common with the Yimou’s and Edward Yangs, as a Asian director deeply concerned with humanism and the nature of the family. But where Yimou or Kar-wai would opt for sumptuous, rich, romantic colors, Kore-eda is more profoundly subdued, drab, and melancholic.
His films utilize palettes of browns, muted greens, cold blues, off-whites. His favorite scenes are raintime, indoors with muted lighting, cluttered backstreets. I am reminded now of Yojiro Takita’s Departures (2008), a poignant film about a Japanese violinist who becomes an undertaker, which took a measured approach to its cinematography, and allowed the quiet dignity of its subject matter to shine through.
Kore-eda, who began his career as a filmmaker through documentary film, is often compared with Yasujiro Ozu for his preoccupation with family. Roger Ebert’s review of Maborosi takes this approach, noting his use of pillow shots, the tatami shot placement, the use of long shots without camera movement. Kore-eda himself would rather invite comparison to British director Ken Loach, who holds the distinction of winning the Palme D’Or twice, for The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006) and I, Daniel Blake (2016). I see that influence in Shoplifters (2018), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was impressed by its social realism. It tells the story of a family of unrelated criminals who shoplift for sustenance – but it is brave enough to insist this family is perhaps a more caring, loving one than a regular family bonded by blood.
Back to Maborosi in particular, which is shot in 35mm film on location in Wajima, a coastal city on the Noto peninsula, where the sheer power and scale of the Sea of Japan is on full display. In the film its a rather frigid place, where the protagonist Yumiko (played by Makiko Esumi) moves to with her new family, after the death of her previous husband. Yumiko’s new husband, Tamio, is also a widower, and there is a sense of shared sadness, of mutually settling for someone wrestling with a similar inexplicable tragedy. Yumiko’s first husband Asano’s death when he mysteriously wanders onto train tracks is never shown nor thoroughly explained, yet its wake hangs over Yumiko and Maborosi like an thick fog.
Esumi, a fashion model at the time and debuting as an actress, lends the movie a surprising sense of gravity and mystique. Standing at 1.70m, her performance seems to consist mostly of standing and sitting rather than dialogue. It is an unusual choice, but one that fits well within the context Kore-eda establishes, and as Yumiko she emits an aura of stark, existential beauty, as someone haunted by the callousness and loneliness of modern life. Her performance would win her the Newcomer awards at both the Japanese Academy and Blue Ribbon awards ceremonies.
Of course, I don’t want to argue that Maborosi is an enigmatic film simply because it lacks heavy dialogue, or that Esumi’s performance is masterful simply for standing around. But for the tone and narrative Maborosi develops, these are the correct decisions. These are distanced, static, long shots, where characters frequently stand dwarfed and suffocated by their surroundings. We learn to develop empathy for them not through close ups or dramatic moments, but by the quiet serenity and grace they manage to carry themselves with, even as they search for the moment their lives became punctuated by the particular sadness of grief.
That is to say, another source of the beauty of the film is the stunning and stark cinematography by Masao Nakabori, who handles the interiors and colors with a particular beauty of relish. He does an astounding job of capturing the stifling power of an empty home, as well as the raw natural power of Wajima’s coast. For Maborosi, the compositions are geometric and linear, punctuated by contrasts of light and depth that divide rooms and cut up visual space. Shoji paper walls and windows provide excellent raw material for graphic, square compositions.
It is times like these that I feel privileged that vision occupies such a central space in human life, and that there can be a medium so capable of demonstrating the subtle interplay of space and light, form and color, and that it can be populated so many sincere examples of astonishing beauty. Although not everyone will enjoy films like Maborosi, with its sparse dialogue, distanced long takes, and lack of definite answers, I am glad it exists.