This first fiction feature by Kore-eda Hirokazu is currently on re-release in selected UK cinemas following the great success of Shoplifters in 2018. The BFI ran a full retrospective of Kore-eda’s fiction output during April and May and there is a Blu-ray release planned for this title in a package with After Life, Nobody Knows and Still Walking due for release in July. HOME in Manchester is offering a mini-season of the first five Kore-eda films in the second half of June entitled ‘Of Flesh and Blood’. Maboroshi is playing at HOME on the 16th June.
Maboroshi no hikari, to give the full Japanese title, is an adaptation by Ogita Yoshihisa of a novella/short story by Miyamoto Teru. For his later films, Kore-eda has often chosen news events or has been stimulated by his own life experience. In this case, though the source for the narrative seems ‘external’, it also seems in line with Kore-eda’s interests. The title translates roughly as ‘phantom light’, ‘shimmering light’ or perhaps ‘a trick of the light’ and it refers directly to the details of an anecdote told at the end of the film. We first meet Yumiko as a girl living with her parents and younger brother in a dismal building in Osaka. She is helpless to prevent her aged grandmother leaving the house and never being seen again – she has told the young girl that she is returning to Shikoku to die. Yumiko sleeps badly after this and her childhood friend Ikuo seems to offer her only distraction. When we meet Yumiko a few years later she is played by Esumi Makiko as a tall and graceful mother of a little boy (Yuichi), still living in Osaka and now married to Ikuo (now played by Asano Tadanobu before he became very well-known in Japanese films). Yumiko still dreams about her grandmother’s disappearance. The couple seem happy together but one night Ikuo is killed while walking home along the railway track. Yumiko is devastated and puzzled. Why do people think it was suicide? (This isn’t a spoiler – the only information on the BBFC certificate shown before the titles simply states ‘suicide theme’.) Eventually, a good neighbour acts as a traditional matchmaker and introduces Yumiko to a widower with a daughter a few years older than Yuichi and mother and son travel across Central Japan to a small fishing village on the West Coast near Wajima. How will this second marriage work out? Will Yumiko emerge from her long period of mourning?
I will avoid too many spoilers from this point on. I want to comment mainly on the visual style of this first fiction feature (after the director’s work in television documentary) and also on the ways in which it presents ideas to which Kore-eda may return in later films. Unsurprisingly perhaps, there is more of a sense of the documentarist’s ‘observing’ eye in Maborosi, both in the street scenes, but also in the use of long shots and long takes. Towards the end of the film the long shots are expanded even further so we get to see a small ‘action’ within a long shot of the entire coastal village (from the heights above the settlement). Against these expansive shots, Kore-eda offers us interiors which all seem underlit and in which events often seem to play out very slowly indeed.
Since he began making fiction films, Kore-eda has been subject to various suggestions by Western critics and scholars about his influences and particularly the possibility that he has been strongly influenced by Ozu Yasujiro. Kore-eda has responded by agreeing that he has studied Ozu but that he still isn’t sure what he makes of the films. Naruse Mikio has been the one of the 1950s ‘masters’ who Kore-eda himself has acknowledged. Kore-eda has also stated quite clearly that Hou Hsiao-hsien (an Ozu fan) and Ken Loach (as a filmmaker concerned with ‘social issues’) are two of his main influences. The social issue in Maborisi is the long-term impact of bereavement on the widow and her son. Yumiko cannot get past her memories of her grandmother and of Ikuo and this prevents her from helping Yuichi in his attempts to feel part of his new family. Fortunately he now has a step-sister a few years older and his new father seems a patient and loving man. He also has a new grandfather. The next door neighbour, a fisherman, is helpful too and in the village there is Tomeno, an older woman who still goes out to sea to catch crabs for her market stall. She is an important figure for Yumiko’s new family, but does she remind Yumiko of her grandmother? She is perhaps the first of the older women who populate some of Kore-eda’s later films.
In one sense the narrative seems to split in two with the interior world of Yumiko and the external world of the village in which Yuichi and his step-sister can play quite safely, protected by the other villagers. While Yumiko’s narrative is very dark, Yuichi’s looks forward to similar scenes by the sea in Our Little Sister (2015). Esumi Makiko as Yumiko made her first film appearance in Maborosi at 28. She had been a volleyball player and a model. She appears mainly in sombre clothes throughout the film with long, narrow skirts and long tops. She doesn’t say a great deal and mostly she wears her hair down. In the final sequence, Kore-eda seems to be playing with ideas about the traditional Japanese female ghost figure (though the figure of Sadako in Ringu was still a few years away from making such figures very familiar in the West). Watch out for Yumiko sitting in a bus shelter – you’ll need to look carefully!
I can’t get too far away from the Ozu comments, especially since there are some shots in the film that remind us of Ozu’s ‘pillow shots’, especially those which are ’empty’ of human figures. But there are also static shots that tend to have a more symbolic or metaphorical function. For instance, there is a repeated static long shot of a figure walking away from the camera, either through a tunnel or under a bridge or arch. The figures are mainly silhouettes, moving from the dark into the light. There is an obvious connotation of a ‘portal’ to another world, but the third such shot shows Yuichi and his step-sister enjoying exploring the world of his new home village. Nakabori Masao is a cinematographer who seems to have worked over several years with the same director, Jissôji Akio, on a series of genre pictures before Maborosi. I haven’t seen any of these films but they don’t immediately suggest why he might be chosen by Kore-eda. I’m assuming that the director expressed his requirements very carefully and the results are astonishing. I’ve already hinted at the tone of the horror/ghost story film and there is a general sense of mystery surrounding the dominant feeling of loss, but also the strengths of family. Chen Ming-chang, who I assume to be a Taiwanese film music composer, is responsible for the film’s haunting score (apologies for the inevitable pun). He had previously composed scores for two Hou Hsiao-hsien films. Again, the score is unusual and seems to have generated a great deal of interest as a soundtrack album.
I think I’ve spent more time going over scenes from this film than any other I’ve seen for some time. I have the original UK DVD which in the early 2000s, before my immersion in Kore-eda’s later work, I found difficult to watch. Having now seen it on a cinema screen and researched the film’s background and reception I’ve come to the conclusion that this was an astounding fiction feature début. It’s now plain that Kore-eda’s interest in ‘family’ stories is introduced here, but there is also a focus on memory which will feature in the next two films (a documentary, Without Memory (1996) and After Life in 1999). I now realise too that the documentary August Without Him (1994) about the first Japanese man to announce he had AIDS was an important experience for Kore-eda, pushing him towards fiction as a form to allow him to explore his interest in humanist narratives. Kore-eda’s narrative control in Maborosi and the way in which sound and image are used is extraordinary. Although he didn’t write the script, Kore-eda appears to have embraced it as his own. His original aim was to become a writer before he switched his interest to visual arts. After this film he became both the scriptwriter and the editor of all of his films.
Maborosi is essential viewing as Kore-eda’s first fiction feature and as a standalone film narrative that demonstrates the director’s commitment to his work. In one of the most perceptive contemporary reviews, Mark Sinker in Sight and Sound, July 1996 suggests that Kore-eda presents a film with all the trappings of a severe art film – the long static shots, the use of only natural light, the very careful framings etc. – but sometimes shifts to the delights of the details of daily life for the family and the occasional glimpses of the comic possibilities of the presentation. In the later films, it seems to me that the visual signifiers become less pronounced and our empathy with the characters begins to develop more through the writing and the performances. With each film, it seems that Kore-eda hones his skills as one of modern cinema’s finest humanist directors.
The BFI’s new trailer for the film: