Koreeda’s cold look at grief: “Maborosi”

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Koreedaa Hirokazu’s first fictional feature, “Maboroshi no hikari” (Trick of Light, or Optical Illusion, 1995) builds on the portrait of grief in one of his documentaries. “Maborosi” (as the title has been shortened to “Maborosi” in American release) strikes me as a cold film, observing an Osaka woman, Yumiko (model Esume Makiko, who would star in Suzuki’s “Pistol Opera” and Shinohara’s “Inochi”), whose heretofore cheerful factory-worker husband, Ikuo (Asano Tanobu, who would play Genghis Khan in Bodrov’s “Mongol” and the title role in Miike’s “Ichi, the Killer”), walked into an oncoming train one night, leaving her with their three-month-old son, Yumiko. She is also haunted by a dream (based on memory from the cusp of her adolescence) in which her beloved grandmother is fleeing, going home to Shikoku to die.

Four or five years later, a marriage-broker sets her up with a widower, Tamio (Naitoh Takashi, who would return in Koreeda’s 1998 “After Life”) who had moved back to the small coastal village he had fled. She bore him a daughter before dying. Yumiko remains haunted by death (seeming to me to feel guilt both about her grandmother’s and her first husband’s though there is no indication of any specific reasons for blaming herself). The disappearance of her crab vendor provides new distress, and Yumiko looks particularly miserable following (at a short distance) the group of a funeral procession shot in long shot for a pretty long time, one of the rare segments of the film with a musical soundtrack.

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The title comes from the answer her second husband gives to her question “Why did he do it?” Tamio never knew Ikuo, but suggests that, rather than having planned to kill himself, Ikuo was entranced by the oncoming light. “Maborosi” is a light fishermen sometimes see or imagine, a visual siren call enticing them to shipwreck. Yumiko is not visibly comforted by this possible explanation (as this viewer was), but, then, she shows no emotion at any time during the movie. It is not just that she is traumatized, but the distance from which she is shot even in the brief happy part of the movie interacting with Ikuo.

Koreeda had just made a documentary about Taiwanese movie directors Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang. Hou, in particular, was influenced by the static framing of Ozu movies and the “pillow shots” (images of inert objects belonging to the characters). The characters often walk through the frame rather than being followed, and, as in Ozu and Hou films, the view across a room, which may include a doorway, is held after the characters have left it. Such holdons slow the already slow pace of the plotless movie observing mostly from a distance (long and medium shots with, I think, only one closeup). Since Koreeda used only natural light, many scenes are rather dim. The children seem unfazed by their parents’ grief, but the movie is slow, dark, and melancholic.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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