What a nice surprise this was. Given its story content, "Maborosi" might have fallen victim to the familiar, often wearisome trappings of melodrama. Instead, it is executed with a great deal of care, patience and an impeccable aesthetic sensibility. In dealing with characters whose emotions are reserved but nonetheless clearly felt, the film itself makes a deep impression, but through the subtlest of means.
In a brief prologue, we meet Yumiko, the heroine of the film, as a young girl who witnesses her grandmother cross a bridge, determined to choose where she wants to die. She is never seen again. Years later, Yumiko (portrayed in a moving debut performance by Makiko Esumi) has settled into marriage with a young man named Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano). They live a quiet life with their infant son in Osaka , both seemingly happy. Quite suddenly, Ikuo dies under circumstances that point to suicide, even though his behavior leading up to the incident gave no open indication that he was considering it. Time passes and Yumiko remarries to a new husband (Takashi Naitô) and, with her son, moves to his home in a small fishing village. She adapts to her new life, but not without the mystery of her first husband’s death still weighing heavily on her thoughts.
"Maborosi" bears a sparse, gentle style highly reminiscent of the films of Ozu and Taiwanese director Edward Yang. Accordingly, the framing is exquisite, and most of the time the camera is still, content with settling on its subjects from a distance. As the film establishes the coastal town, it treats the audience to many artfully composed sequences. A particularly beautiful one follows Yumiko’s son as he roams with his new sister, the two children climbing over washed up pieces of driftwood and abandoned boats, at one point racing along the edge of a pool which gives off a mirror-clear reflection of their figures. Many shots are presented solely for descriptive purposes: elderly villagers crouching together and smoking cigarettes, waves crashing around scattered concrete shapes on the shore, Yumiko’s son lying between his grandfather’s legs, both of them napping peacefully in a shore-bound boat. The Osaka sequences are no less poetic, establishing its urban setting through shots of close, quiet streets and the reoccurring presence of trains that continually speed throughout the neighborhood. The use of lighting throughout the film is nothing short of masterful, bathing the screen with the yellowish glow of lanterns, waning afternoon sheens, early morning sunlight, striking sunsets and more. The passage of time is felt quite strongly, presented through the gradual but noticeable shifting of seasons and changing conditions within the seaside community.
Amid all of this cinematic beauty, "Maborosi" chiefly touches upon the specter of grief that follows unexplained loss. In it, death is something that exists only as an ambiguous, unknowable, definitive entity – much like the ever-present sea that is so prominently featured throughout the film. Several times, the town’s fishers refer to its power to beguile with an air of fear and respect, though at one point, in a scene that recalls the grandmother in the prologue, Yumiko watches from her window as a confident (or stubborn) old woman sets off in her boat during a cruel storm, as if to tease fate. I won’t give away the meaning of the film’s title here, but it too links the elemental nature of the sea to death, offering a sort of coda for Yumiko’s passage of grief and confusion. There is death, there is the sea, there is time; all of these things simply exist, indifferent to how we feel about them or whether we can even makes sense of them.
After I finished the film, I looked up its director on IMDb. I was pleased (but, after a moment, not too surprised) to recognize his name: Hirokazu Kore-eda, the man who also made the highly acclaimed works "After Life" and "Nobody Knows". "Maborosi" being his first feature film, it exudes many of the stylistic traits that he would retain throughout his career: grace, restraint, a delicate touch regarding serious subjects that too many other filmmakers beat down with a hammer. Through its tranquil methods, it provides a greatly rewarding viewing experience and is most definitely worth seeking out.