I once heard a joke astutely analogizing humanity, that most meaning-seeking of all life forms, to a race of space aliens possessed of large trunks. Presented with any given fact, the aliens respond not by asking “Yes, but what does that mean?” but “Yes, but what does that have to do with trunks?” Were Yumiko, Maborosi's young protagonist, one of these aliens, she'd spend much of the film on the trunk hunt, consciously or subconsciously. But she's a human being, and as such always seeking the why, a seemingly simple tendency that constructs the entire picture's framework.
As the film opens, we witness, in flashback, the first event that throws Yumiko's mind into a questioning, wondering loop. As a little girl, she watched her hunched grandmother wander off into the distance, insisting that she must return, on foot, to her childhood home. The scene turns out to be a recurring dream that has plagued the now-twentysomething Yumiko since the grandmother's figure receded into the distance and never appeared again. Why did she feel compelled to return to the village of her youth? Why didn't she come back? Why couldn't Yumiko stop her? Izuo, Yumiko's husband, knows well what haunts his wife. “I'm not the reincarnation of your grandmother,” he reminds her when she suddenly wakes, the dream over once again.
Yumiko and Izuo live a limited but painless working-class lifestyle in urban Osaka, he working his days in a small factory, she caring for their baby son Yuichi. When his bicycle disappears, Izuo casually swipes another from a richer part of town. Koreeda illustrates the couple's day-to-day existence with subdued, near-wordless sequences whose naturalism puts us right on the edge of voyeurism. Disguising the purloined bike, Yumiko and Izuo repaint it together in secret. A delighted Yuichi laughs as Yumiko bathes him in a minature tub. Izuo expresses his unease at the topknot a co-worker, a onetime sumo wrestler, still wears. Using unadorned locations, very few close-ups or camera movements and almost entirely natural light, they demonstrate an aesthetic strain in Koreeda's work that's stronger nowhere than in this particular work, a film with all of cinema's controlled precision and none of its vestigial, theater-inherited artifice.
Fearing damage from a coming rain, Izuo brings his bike home from work one midday. Yumiko watches as he jauntily strolls back to the factory, which turns out to be the second of her life's unforgettable exits. The policeman's visit comes late that night: a man, he tells her, has been crushed under a train. They found the card of Izuo's company on the body, and the other employees have been accounted for. Furthermore, it doesn't appear to have been a clear-cut accident: ignoring the conductor's frantic soundings of the horn and the screeching of the train's brakes, the man calmly continued walking along the track. To the police it sounds like a suicide, but why would Izuo wish to die?
Koreeda doesn't show us a distraught Yumiko's paroxysms of hysteria. On the ride to the station, ostensibly to identify the body, she remains silently impassive. Those searching for roiling emotions can find them immediately outside the squad car's window, as cascades of pounding rain obscure every square inch of passing scenery. The picture's sensibility, though possibly sui generis, might well be called anti-melodrama: eschewing the standard tightly-framed outpouring of fear, anger and grief, it instead steps back and lets the natural world through the cinematographer's eye do the emoting.
Moonlighting as a matchmaker, a local tailor sets the careerless but still child-toting Yumiko up with a new husband. The fellow, she's told, is a reasonably prosperous widower with an adolescent daugher off in the seaside fishing village of Noto. Lacking any clear alternative, Yumiko and Yuichi pack their things and enter, sight unseen, into another life in the subdued Ishikawa prefecture. Tamio, the man tasked with bringing his new wife and stepson into the small, closely-connected community, turns out to be a reserved but amiable man resolved to make a go of the arrangement.
Make a go of it they do. Koreeda conveys the organic establishment of the rhythyms of this flash-forged family's pleasant existence in much the same way he showed us the final days of Yumiko and Izuo's time together, with discrete, purposefully explored moments not bent out of shape in enslavement to an overbearing plot. Yuichi and Tamio's daughter play along the shore, happening upon a long-wrecked fishing boat and discussing what to do with it. Yumiko emerges from her new home's back door into a kind of sunlight we hadn't seen in Osaka. Attempting to escape one of Noto's heat waves, Tamio and Yumiko, stripped to their underwear, huddle in the dark between an open window and a fan. Yuichi and Tamio's elderly father doze in a beached dinghy. Everyone gathers on the porch to eat gigantic wedges of watermelon.
But no matter how idyllic her seaside life becomes, Yumiko can't put the question out of her mind: why did Izuo step onto the track? Was it a deliberate act, or was he simply not paying attention? What could his death mean? The issue grows cloudier still when, on a return visit to Osaka, Yumiko chats with a local coffee house's owner who tells her that Izuo stopped by for a cup on the very same night he died. He didn't seem suicidal, the man says, nor particularly unhappy — not even drunk. The lack of an answer — the impossibility of an answer — consumes Yumiko silently, almost imperceptibly.
One night, Yumiko, unable to stand it any longer, allows the question to erupt: “I just don't understand,” she wails at Tamio as they walk along the water's dark, rocky edge. “Why did he kill himself? It just goes around and around in my head!” Tamio responds with the story of the mysterious light in the sky his father used to see in his fishing days, a phenomenon known as maborosi that, so legend has it, occasionally lures fishermen out into the water and their demise. While not exactly an explanation for Izuo's death, it's the best that Izuo's replacement can offer — likely the best anyone can offer.
Like all excellent films, this one positively exudes respect for its audience. Koreeda seems to know that he can't satisfy us with the sort of direct statement, maudlin display, simplistic causality or unrealistic marionette work found in lesser cinema. He paints his picture with not only the fewest possible brushstrokes but the most evocative ones, applied with impossible attentiveness and concentration. The story develops not through a tennis ball machine's thudding volley of plot points but through meticulously selected and crafted impressions, single curves that imply sprawling mountain ranges.
Koreeda made this, his first work of fiction, after years spent shooting documentaries. Though its content does indicate an affinity for realism, everything else stands at about as far a remove from documentary filmmaking's aesthetically utilitarian reputation as possible. The combination of realistic subject matter and aestheticized delivery brings to mind one colleague and countryman of Koreeda's in particular: a certain Yasujirō Ozu. Had he shot not another frame after Maborosi, Koreeda could still easily be regarded as Ozu's heir. The picture reveals mastery of a host of subtle techniques also seen in Ozu's work, including but certainly not limited to his famed “pillow shots,” extended images unrelated to the main narrative but inserted for compositional or rhythmic purposes. These natural, architectural and human details — a distant procession marching across the shoreline, under a vast gray cloud, sihouetted against the sea here being perhaps the most striking — provide the badly needed breathing room most movies don't allow.
This is not to say that the film's visual appeal comes from imitation of its predecessors. Even on the unacceptably hazy DVD transfers currently available, it has a distinctive look and feel unparalleled by any other picture I've ever seen. Though he employs a few strategies traceable to Ozu, Koreeda does more with the pure medium than did the master. With only a fraction of the dialogue heard in Ozu's films, Koreeda here delivers an overwhelming degree of human experience with light (usually low), framing, atmosphere, pacing, music (sparingly) and manner. The result prompts a bold claim, but if this level of filmmaking craft doesn't merit it, nothing does. Maborosi is perfect.
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