Editor’s Pick – Maborosi (1995)

Director: Hirozaku Koreeda | Runtime: 1h 50mins | Drama

After being happily married for a short while, Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) and her young child lose their husband and father, seemingly in a suicide, and attempt to move on with their lives without any explanation.

Director Hirozaku Koreeda has carved one of the best careers for any working filmmaker today, creating some incredibly genuine and engaging features such as 2008’s Still Walking and 2018’s extraordinary Shoplifters (the latter of which is probably the directors best). To date Maborosi – his feature length debut – is one of the few he directed but didn’t write, and you’d imagine there would be less refinement compared to this late works, but Koreeda created a haunting but beautiful piece with an extremely patient pace.

Much like the rest of his filmography, Koreeda has a certain way to film many scenes, usually important to inform us of character or relationships, or a emotionally impactful sequence, which is to leave the camera set – usually low down – and the characters just move within the still frame. It’s always been an excellent way to emphasise the realism in his films, there’s no flashy camera movements or cuts just letting the actors play out in front of us For Maborosi it’s a constant feeling of emptiness, the rooms usually have open spaces and the bare minimum, Yumiko feeling lost anywhere she seems to go.

The narrative itself is simple but effective and almost entirely revolves around Yumiko, played excellently by Makiko Esumi (potentially a risky choice by Koreeda, Esumi came from a modelling career and this acts as her feature debut also). Most of the story actually ends up playing off screen as we spend the time with Yumiko, seeing how she deals with the situations. Happily married, her husband Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano) apparently doesn’t move off the track when a train approaches, leaving his wife and son behind. For the immediate time after, Yumiko barely functions, having her mothers help with the newborn. Everyone seems slightly cold towards her – her own mother seems barely phased by the situation, and the police are almost comically blunt in telling her of her husbands death. It starts a seemingly never ending line of people who can’t understand her, the loneliness always present.

She only leaves her rut 5 years later when a slightly more passionate neighbour arranges a new marriage to Tamio (Takeshi Naitō), a widower with a daughter in a coastal town some distance away. She isn’t reluctant to go, but is hardly excited either, much of those last 5 years she’s felt that her unhappiness is a hindrance on others – it’s more of a way to feel like she’s helping her family instead. There’s a period in which Yumiko seems to be happier, her new husband is kind to them and everyone is welcoming but it doesn’t last forever and guilt starts to seep in, the confusion rises but it’s different – it’s not just about why her husband died the way he did, but also why she feels guilt all these years later. They are likely better off now than they ever could have been before, was that Ikuo’s intention? This tragedy is constantly with her, never getting the answers always leaving her somewhat hollow for not knowing.

We understand that she’s not the only one trying to bridge the gap between a past pain, that she isn’t alone in her loneliness, making it that bit more heartbreaking.

That is essentially the entire plot of the film – but that’s not what Maborosi is about, it’s not something to watch for an engaging narrative, but rather the emotionality. As mentioned, the framing is reflective of Yumiko’s own state, many scenes opening or ending on empty rooms, not shying away from holding longer than you’d anticipate on these spaces, even in the later scenes in the coastal town. There’s a lovely shot of Yumiko and Tamio sat indoors by a window, melting from the heat, fan blasting. They’re half in the shade, legs in the light, but the room lacks any detail or character. We understand that she’s not the only one trying to bridge the gap between a past pain, that she isn’t alone in her loneliness, making it that bit more heartbreaking.

For anyone expecting closure, Maborosi is not the film for you. There isn’t any definitive answer to Ikuo’s death, or Tamio’s wife either. There isn’t a forgone conclusion in their relationship either, the final scenes have them almost -but not quite – arguing on the water front, a small fire at the end and the sun setting the only lights creating their dark silhouettes. It’s a haunting juxtaposition against the family we opened with, and the toll it took on Yumiko.

Every little element of the film seems to carefully put together, Koreeda’s attention to detail is impeccable – it would be an excellent outing for any director, let alone their debut. There’s many superb pieces to watch in his back catalogue, but Maborosi may be his most understated, muted but effortlessly beautiful to date.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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