Hirokazu Koreeda’s career has been continuously blessed with international recognition. His Palme d’Or win at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival for Shoplifters is only the last in a bountiful string of awards brought home by the Japanese director throughout the years – the first being the Golden Osella awarded to his first fiction film, Maborosi (1995), for its outstanding cinematography.
Before pivoting to arthouse drama, Koreeda began his career as an assistant director on television documentaries at a company called TV Man Union. His first solitary foray behind the camera happened in the early 1990s when he directed the mid-length documentary Lessons from a Calf (1991) in which Koreeda follows a class of elementary school kids raising a dairy cow as part of their curriculum.
Despite the project’s modest inception, the seeds of Koreeda’s fascination with a spontaneous representation of life are already apparent here. Elsewhere, his early documentary work also reveals an interest in the themes of loss and memory that will later mature in his commercially acclaimed fiction films.
Maborosi’s themes of bereavement and grief can be traced back to the director’s documentary phase too. When shooting However… (1991), a film examining the emotional and social repercussions of the Minamata disaster, Koreeda took an interest in how humans cope with the loss of loved ones, including interviewing a woman whose husband had committed suicide.
His debut drama is adapted from Teru Miyamoto’s short story ‘Maboroshi no Hikari’, although Koreeda’s rendition expands the horizon of its sombre protagonist, the young widow Yumiko (Makiko Esumi). In the original story, sitting at a window, Miyamoto’s Yumiko speaks to her dead first husband, her gaze floating pensively over the expanse of the Sea of Japan. By contrast, the world around Koreeda’s Yumiko is wider than a single room and, alternately, both swallows and induces her latent pain.
Some 6 years after the unexpected suicide of his childhood sweetheart-turned-husband Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano), Yumiko and her child leave Amagasaki, an industrial city near Osaka, to relocate to a rural coastal town in the Noto Peninsula where a marriage has been arranged with a widower with a young daughter. At first, the tranquil pace of her new home seems to ease Yumiko’s torment, but the inexplicable nature of Ikuo’s departure haunts her.
Maborosi is a languid film with a static aesthetic, but its emotional force belies the common assumption that technical perfection has to be sterile. It’s in the minimal changes that the film works it wonders. For example, the lulling repetition of tableau shots is broken twice by liberating pan shots. One follows Yumiko’s child and her stepsister running along a rice paddy; the other fixes a funeral procession between the parallel lines of the seashore and the horizon.
Mostly composed of long shots, the film’s sole medium close-up strikingly heightens the shot-reverse-shot sequence tracing the returned gazes of the couple through a factory’s window door.
In this unadorned fashion, everything that’s not necessary is simply left out. Maborosi is an instance of technical minimalism at its finest, speaking to the ineffable nature of death and the questions that it leaves behind.
Translating literally as ‘light of an illusion’, the Japanese title plays with the film’s composition as well as with its metaphysical meaning. In keeping with his formative documentary years, Koreeda instructed his cinematographer Masao Nakabori to use techniques from both fictional and non-fictional films, leading to the decision to shoot the entire film in natural light.
Light is the litmus paper of Yumiko’s emotions. In Amagasaki, she’s often shown immersed in shadowy spaces, which enshroud her sorrow. When in the Noto Peninsula, light starts to seep in, its lambent rays caressing the woman while she cleans the wooden stairs of her spacious traditional house.
As the film progresses, the burden of shadows is eventually lifted. A casual remark on the fine weather of a bright sunny day closes the story on a tender, domestic note.
In portraying different families, Maborosi captures the impermanent nature of domestic bonds. An impending sense of mortality accompanies Yumiko’s relationships. In the dream sequence that opens the film, we see her running after her grandmother, who stubbornly decided to return to her hometown to die, desperately trying to convince her to stay.
This guilt-ridden memory has haunted Yumiko for years, as death first lures her husband and then tries to take a close neighbour’s life too. Gnawing away at her emotional stability, life’s enigmas evade Yumiko’s comprehension, and yet mantle Koreeda’s striking debut film with a composed, numinous beauty.