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MABOROSI

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Makiko Esumi, Takashi Naitoh, Tadanobu Asano
Director: Kore-eda Hirokazu
Audio: Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, letter-boxed widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: New Yorker Films
Features: Trailers, director profile, filmography, "Making Of Maborosi" essays
Length: 110 minutes
Release Date: November 21, 2000

"For my generation...there is a feeling of a lack of certainty about anything, a universal undefined feeling of loss." - Kore-eda Hirokazu

Film ****

Of Japan's current crop of film directors, perhaps none is more promising than Kore-eda Hirokazu.  During the early 1990's, Kore-eda was a well-regarded documentary filmmaker, developing a reputation as a conscientious social commentator on Japanese life.  Most of his early work was for Japanese television, and one documentary, But - in the Time of Government Aid Cuts (1991), even earn him a prestigious Galaxy Award.  This documentary explored the mysterious, apparent suicide of a government official; more importantly though, it served as inspiration for what would eventually become Kore-eda's first feature-length film - Maborosi.

Maborosi is based upon "Maborosi no Hikari (Illusory Light)," a 1979 short story by Teru Miyamoto.  The original story was inspired by a photograph which the author had once seen of an elderly woman struggling against the wintry elements of her Noto home.  Miyamoto's story evolved into an exploration of the pain of personal loss; through Kore-eda's cinematic vision, it has been adapted into a film of great beauty, filled with painterly and haunting images.  Maborosi is, in Kore-eda's words, a sort of "fairy tale, through which I could directly convey the interior landscape of the sorrow [the woman] carries around with her."

Maborosi is a film about Yumiko, a very young woman living in the Japanese city of Osaka.  She is happily married and has a newborn son, but shortly into the film, a sudden tragedy claims the life of her husband.  Although Yumiko eventually re-marries after a period of mourning, her former husband's death, perhaps a suicide, continues to haunt her.

That, in essence, is the entirety of the plot.  Had this been an American production, the film would probably have featured numerous scenes involving heavy weeping or cathartic, emotional speeches - in short, it would most likely have been a manipulative tear-jerker.  Maborosi is none of this.  It is a quiet and subdued film, and much of its drama is revealed not by the actual dialogue but rather but the settings and the delicates gestures of the characters.  Yumiko herself internalizes her feelings, the extent of which is only suggested when her scenes are compared to those of her young son, seen playing along the coastal shores or exploring the nearby meadows of his new home with his step-sister.  He displays an innocence and gaiety that is diminished in Yumiko's life; the difference is subtle and easily missed, but its cumulative effect over the course of the film helps to reveal emotions which are otherwise not verbalized until almost the final scene in the film.  While Yumiko's emotional restraint may be a reflection of traditional Japanese culture, it can also be interpreted through Western eyes as suggesting the struggles of a young woman trying to transcend the unspoken grief within her.

When Kore-eda was in the crucial process of finding the right actress to portray Yumiko, he came across photographs of Makiko Esumi, then one of the top models in Japan.  What struck him most was the depth and expressiveness of her eyes, in which he saw strength yet also a great sadness.  Esumi had never acted before but accepted Kore-eda's offer of the role.  Her subsequent performance is a touching one that establishes the sometimes-merry and sometimes-melancholy tenor for the film.  Esumi's Yumiko is cheerful and talkative, almost child-like, in the early Osaka scenes but after her husband's death becomes somber and more reserved.  It is as though the weight of her private thoughts has crushed her spirits, and only through the slow passage of time can she recover some trace of her former liveliness.

Yumiko has a recurring dream of her grandmother, who one day long ago walked away from home and did not return.  Yumiko was a child at the time, though she still carries within her a sense of guilt over her grandmother's death.  This motif will be re-iterated through the character of the village elderly woman in Noto; she is a local fisher-woman and a strong swimmer who goes out to sea one day to catch some crabs at Yumiko's behest but fails to return when expected.

This raises an interesting issue concerning death in the film - do people choose the moment of their passing?  And, can those who are left behind ever hope to completely comprehend how or why a person dies?  Yumiko, still haunted by the perplexing circumstances around her first husband's apparent suicide, cannot bear another loss.  In a pivotal scene late in the film, by the Noto seashore, she finally turns to her second husband for answers, and he responds, "They say that the sea seduces you -  there is this illusory light that appears in the distance and lures you out to sea."

His response is in keeping with the film's lyrical and often poetic tone.  Perhaps death lures us ever closer, and we are powerless in our will to resist.  There may never be a rationale for why one person dies so young or why another person may lead a full life.  For those of us who must continue to live in the wake of such tragedies, we can only hope that through acceptance we may find solace from our private grief.

Esumi's performance in Maborosi is a major reason for the film's effectiveness.  But, Kore-eda's expressive cinematography also plays a significant role as well.  Maborosi is that extremely rare film of which it can honestly be said that nearly every single frame is as pretty as a painting.  Clearly, a great deal of effort was invested in capturing the right images to create the film's exquisite and poignant look.

The cinematography in Maborosi is unusual in that, for the most part, the camera work shows no movement whatsoever.  Beyond two key scenes (an excursion by the children and Yumiko's scene near the end), the camera is completely stationary and does not even pan the landscape.  Scenes are frequently presented as long, uninterrupted takes, affording them a gravity that allows their full impact to settle upon the minds of viewers.  Moreover, many scenes are done as extreme long shots or medium shots, with perhaps only two or three true close-ups (of Yumiko) in the entire film.  As a result, these rare close-ups have a more immediate effect upon us, enhancing our appreciation of Yumiko's state of mind.

The cinematography reflects Yumiko's mood in other ways.  Since much of her feelings are internalized, subtle visual clues are used throughout the film, for very little in the film is overtly presented.  Whether it be scenes in which Yumiko is shown in silhouette, quietly performing household chores or playing with a small bicycle bell, her last token of remembrance from her departed husband, these scenes indirectly illustrate the incredible sense of loss and hollow emptiness that she is experiencing.  The landscapes, from the enclosed and claustrophobic city environs of Osaka, to the more open, breezy oceanside town of Noto, also mark a progression in her spiritual journey, symbolizing the first step in the liberation of her true feelings.

Ultimately, Maborosi will affect people differently, depending on their personal experiences.  The film will resonate most strongly in those viewers who have suffered a personal tragedy.  They will comprehend the heavy burden of guilt and sorrow that accompanies such a loss and will empathize more deeply with the heavy emotional burden which Yumiko carries.  Maborosi may be a quiet and unassuming film, but it does require some thought and participation from its audiences.

In 1995, the film was exhibited at several international film festivals.  At the Venice Film Festival, Maborosi was awarded the prestigious Ozella d'Oro.  At the Chicago International Film Festival, it received the Best Picture award.  By the year's end, Maborosi had become a regular presence on many top ten lists for the year, and in the ensuing years, it has become regarded as one of the finest Japanese films of the past decade.

The celebrated Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, towards the end of his career, lamented what he felt was a slow but certain demise of Japanese cinema.  Kore-eda's feature film directorial debut, Maborosi, however, proves that Kurosawa need not have worried so.  And hopefully, in the years to come, Kore-eda will continue to fulfill the great promise as a film director that he displays in Maborosi.

Video **

Maborosi is presented in a non-anamorphic widescreen format.  It is clearly a straight transfer from video, and while the picture quality is colorful, the print is somewhat soft with a light speckling of dust marks.  Occasional timing dots also appear, and the subtitles are burnt into the print and therefore cannot be turned off.  There is a graininess to the transfer, particularly in darker scenes.  The frame is also not always stable, and compression artifacts (edge enhancements, bleeding, aliasing issues, etc.) do manifest themselves from time to time.

Maborosi is such a richly textured and beautifully photographed film that it is a shame the DVD picture quality isn't better.  As it is, this DVD is still watchable but falls short of the increasingly higher standards for DVD transfers nowadays.  I should note, however, that due to the intimate tone of the film, it works better on smaller televisions, upon which the imperfections of the transfer itself are significantly less noticeable.

Audio **

Maborosi is presented with a Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track.  This is merely an average track which at certain times has an unusual echo quality during dialogue.  Fortunately, this isn't really so important, since there is minimal dialogue in the film anyways.  Rather, Maborosi achieves its narration predominately through the visual impact of its images.

The film does possess an eerily ethereal, other-worldly Japanese score.  Kore-eda Hirokazu also employs many natural sounds, such as the gentle song of the ocean waves, the whistling of the passing breezes, or the chimes and horns of the city to create the sometimes sad, sometimes magical soundscape of the film.  It may be more accurate to describe the audio as being comprised mostly of these natural sounds, with only incidental dialogue.

Features * 1/2

There really aren't any special extra features per se on this DVD.  There are two trailers for Maborosi, one in English and one in Japanese, both of which are quite good.  A brief director section offers a short biography and filmography for Kore-eda Hirokazu.

There is also a "The Making of Maborosi" section, but it isn't a documentary.  Instead, it is a series of four very short essays about the film.  These essays are divided into sections addressing inspiration, portrayal, technique, and reflection, which respectively comment on the concept for the film, the casting of the lead actress, the cinematic style of the film, and finally the film itself in general.

Lastly, this DVD has a nice easter egg!  Click on the New Yorker Films logo, and you will gain access to a not-so-hidden section.  This section contains a long essay describing the company's history and its dedication to the preservation and distribution of fine international films.  Included here is a catalog list of some of the company's DVDs.

Best of all, there are four additional trailers in this hidden section.  The first is for After Life, Kore-eda Hirokazu's second film.  The concept of the film is simple yet poetic - if you could only bring one memory with you into the after-life, what would it be?  This widely acclaimed film cemented Kore-eda's international reputation as the most promising Japanese director today.  The second trailer is for Guantanamera, an award-winning Cuban tale of love and romance.  The third trailer is for Unmade Beds, a quirky documentary-style film about sex and relationships.  Finally, there is a trailer for Bitter Sugar, another love story in the politically-energized setting of modern-day Cuba.

Summary:

Maborosi is a haunting but achingly-beautiful tale of a woman's struggles to find love and hope following a tragic loss.  It marks an extremely impressive feature-film directorial debut for Kore-eda Hirokazu.  Keep an eye on this director!  Maborosi is highly recommended for lovers of international cinema!