Breaking Down Conceptual Binaries: Maborosi (Maboroshi no Hikari / 幻の光 1995)

Grief is a many-faceted thing. I’ve often felt that mainstream portrayals of grief treat it like an illness to be gotten over, rather than what it really is: a new state of being. It becomes an indelible part of one’s life, not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing, just another thing. (The explosion of the good/bad experience binary is one of the groundbreaking aspects of Inside Out (2015).) It’s one of my biggest issues with First Man (2018) and, in retrospect, Manchester by the Sea (2016). Maborosi (Maboroshi no Hikari / 幻の光 1995), the Ozu-tinged fiction feature debut of current arthouse darling Hirokazu Kore-eda, is a detailed and deeply empathetic portrayal of one woman carried along by the passage of time, bringing her grief with her.

The theme of the film would’ve been wasted if Kore-eda had started Maborosi any other way. Yumiko (a graceful and subtly powerful Makiko Esumi) dreams again of her grandmother, who left Osaka for her hometown to die in peace. She’s comforted by her husband and childhood friend, Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano), and we see them go about their daily lives, he working at a paper factory, she a housewife with a newborn son. He’s puckish and spontaneous, she and her ponytail and bangs are affectionate and bubbly, and they’re both madly in love with each other.

Then Ikuo seemingly kills himself, getting run over by a commuter train despite all warnings; without a suicide note, we can’t be sure. The entire sequence where she and we find out about this is devastating in its simplicity, in its quietness, and in the contrast between the movement of the police officers, neighbors, and Yumiko’s mother (Midori Kiuchi) and Yumiko’s own dumbstruck stillness. We feel the true loneliness of bereavement.

Yumiko shuts down emotionally, and her mother comes to help with the baby. She’d seem catatonic if not for her sometimes contemplating the bike lock key and bauble the police found on Ikuo’s person. Just a few days ago he’d acquired a new bike and they’d painted it green. Ikuo gave no hint of what would happen to him, not to her, to his coworkers, us viewers, or even to the person who we later learn saw him last: the proprietor of their favorite coffee shop (Hidekazu Akai).

A few years later, Yumiko (sans bangs) is matchmade with Tamio (Takashi Naitô), a widower who lives in a northern fishing village with his also bereaved father (Akira Emoto) and daughter (Naomi Watanabe), who’s a few years older than Yumiko’s son (Gohki Kashiyama). The shift from city to village, from manmade maze to natural landscape, is jarring and worrisome, both to Tamio (who wonders if Yumiko could ever accept her new life) and to us (who wonder the same thing).

But she gives it her best, and perhaps surprisingly, in the midst of meeting her new neighbors and settling into domestic life once again, she’s able to find happiness. A new, different kind of happiness, in which her former bubbliness is toned down to brief joyous smiles, but happiness all the same. The film spends a great deal of time depicting family interactions between individual family members and among everyone together, including with two local stray dogs; the sequence of the two new siblings playing in the fields is breathtakingly gorgeous (shot by Masao Nakabori), and in fact the whole of the film lacks a single boring shot. A great strength of the film is that it sometimes symbolizes but never signifies—it always fills the screen with lived-in details to comprehensively portray Yumiko’s daily life. Each time I thought to myself, “Well what about when they do [a daily life activity]?” the film almost immediately presented me with that very activity. And any ambiguity about Yumiko’s happiness is resolved by an inter-coital semi-nude scene in front of an electric fan on a hot summer day.

When things get so idyllic, you just know something is about to go wrong. Maborosi can’t be said to have the most original story (written by Yoshihisa Ogita based on the novel by Teru Miyamoto), but the level of detail and nuance with which it’s told simultaneously explodes two other binaries: trope vs. cliché and singular vs. universal. A cliché is just a trope lacking sufficient context; the singular and the universal are mutually imbricated, the singular made universal by the familiar recognition of details rather than the recognition of familiar details.

Yumiko returns to Osaka for her younger brother’s off-screen wedding, and she picks up a memory-soaked melancholy that she can’t shake after she gets back, not least when her son is drawn to a kiddie bike in the exact same shade of green as Ikuo’s. In one of the film’s few concessions to exposition, she tells Tamio (and us) that it’s not just because she misses Ikuo. She has learned that, though he previously suggested that he moved back to his home village to care for his elderly father, Tamio was in fact deeply in love with his deceased wife. “Liar!” Yumiko calls him. “How can a person like you marry a person like me?” How can you, knowing what it’s like to be deeply bereft, think that you could provide happiness to a deeply bereft woman like me?

What happiness we saw was simply papering over the unanswered question of loss that she carries with her every second of every day, the question that resurfaced when she went back home and that she can ignore no longer: Why did Ikuo kill himself? She happens on a funeral procession on the windswept winter beach, with tinkling bells that remind us of Ikuo’s lack of a funeral; the lighthearted tune of a roaming petrol service truck in an earlier scene before time passes is revealed to be an ironic echo of these funeral bells.

She follows the procession through a handful of long, far, ponderous, melancholy, yet exceptionally magnificent shots to a pier, where the remains are cremated. By now Tamio has discovered her absence and has gone looking for her; he finds her here. In an extreme long shot, silhouetted against the dying day, he coaxes her home but is met with an apology and an exasperated outburst: “I just wanted to know why! The question keeps making circles in my head!” Tamio replies with a story of the will o’ the wisps that lure sailors who know they should turn back further out to sea (which is what the title refers to). “Maybe it was something like that,” he says.

It’s not an answer, exactly, more like an admission that the question is unanswerable. It’s a very Japanese understanding of suicide: not bluntly tragic or a waste, but alluring, mysterious, not subject to total comprehension, so that it becomes if not understandable then at least acceptable or tolerable; in other words the state of grief itself. The emotional resolution of accepting the incomprehensible is symbolized in the film’s final shot: a sun-drenched set of pen and empty notepad sitting alone on a desk by the window, drapes lightly fluttering.

The empty notepad is what remains of the melancholy of the funeral sequence; the sun comes from the penultimate scene. On a brilliant sunny day, Yumiko (wearing white for only the second time in the film, after her marriage ceremony with Tamio) joins her father-in-law on the sea-facing front porch. “It’s a great day,” he says. She replies, “Yes, it is.” Cut to a wide shot of the village, held just long enough for us to stop anticipating the next cut and truly soak in the ordinary yet dazzling scene and think, “Yes, it is a great day!”

Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large.

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