L ong before he settled into the niche of heart-warming family dramas with Like Father, Like Son (2013), Our Little Sister (2015) and After the Storm (2016), Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda was a specialist in poetic yet gloomy tales of inexplicable abandonment and death involving close relatives. The sense of loss that permeated his early films is most palpable in his sublimely crafted debut, Maborosi (1995).
Having distinguished himself with television documentaries, Koreeda’s film opens with a glimpse into the tranquil married life of Yumiko (played by then-model Makiko Esumi) and Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano), before the latter apparently throws himself under a train. Ikuo’s probable suicide reminds Yumiko of a childhood trauma: she indirectly caused her senile grandmother’s disappearance.
When the story picks up again five years later, the young widow has moved with her young son from their Osaka apartment to an isolated fishing village on the Noto Peninsula, to marry widower Tamio (Takashi Naito). The audience is shown slices of her mundane new life in a stripped-down, almost abstract narrative, before Yumiko communicates her haunting sense of grief to her second husband in a cathartic finale by the sea.
The film’s Japanese title is Maboroshi no Hikari, which refers to the “illusory light” that, as Tamio explains, lures fishermen to their deaths on the high seas. It’s partly based on a short story by Teru Miyamoto, about a woman trying to cope with her husband’s suicide, and inspired by a chance meeting Koreeda had with a grieving widow caught in similar circumstances, while he was making the documentary However… (1991).
For this film, the director has admitted that he drew on Yasujiro Ozu’s signature “framing” approach, and was inspired by art-house luminaries Éric Rohmer, Theo Angelopoulos and Víctor Erice. But it is the Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien who had the greatest influence on Koreeda, evident in the static camera angles and long takes.
After winning a best director prize at the 1995 Venice Film Festival for Maborosi, Koreeda would make the similarly bleak Distance (2001), about a small group of characters confounded by the decision of their relatives – all members of a religious cult – to end their lives together after launching a terrorist attack.
If his subsequent films are any indication, Koreeda has since found peace of mind.
Maborosi will be screened on November 19 at UA iSquare, in Tsim Sha Tsui, as part of the Japan Film Festival 2016.