I was completely stunned this week when I saw an astonishing masterpiece by Japanese auteur, Hirokazu Koreeda, called Maborosi. The film centres on Yumiko and Tamio,a couple who seem to live in a quiet marital happiness, until tragedy strikes when Tamio inexplicably takes his own life. For sure, Maborosi is not the first film to deal with this subject, however, no other film deals with it in the way Maborosi does. Shot with a quiet formalism, using largely static, frontal master shots, Maborosi does not attempt to explain away Tamio’s death, there is no expository trail for Yumiko to follow in order to come to terms with her loss. Instead, the film barely makes any attempt to find the reasons for suicide at all, instead, it focuses on Yumiko’s efforts to get on with her life. And herein lies the miracle of Maborosi; that although it does not deal with Tamio’s death explicitly (until near the end, when in extreme long shot Yumiko confesses she doesn’t understand why Tamio did it), in fact, most of the film contains scenes of Yumiko getting on with, and enjoying, her life, we always sense that the burden of Tamio’s death is with her. Much of this is done through the reminiscence of objects which Yumiko and Tamio shared, such as a bicycle or a string of beads, and through the lighting. However, at the centre of it all, is a heartbreaking performance by Makiko Esumi as Yumiko.
When I say heartbreaking, I don’t mean that Esumi was trying to be heartbraking – that is what we see in so much English language acting these days: actors lining up to pour out their hearts, crocodile tears streaming down their faces in order to get noticed, endlessly balling their eyes out; “oh look how sensitive I am, look how I feel”, the truth is, this actor feels nothing other than the pangs of their own vanity – no, Esumi is heartbreaking because of her absence of tears, because of her restraint, because of her grace in the face of adversity. These days, in British culture at least, we have enthroned our feelings, as though whatever we feel at any moment is the only thing that matters, and that just letting it all hang loose is oh so brave – but it’s not brave, it’s cowardly, and not only is it cowardly, it’s tedious, meaningless, selfish, and createsliars as we compete to be the “most emotional”. Esumi, through her minimalism, reminds us that the emotion is supposed to take place in the audience and not in the actor. There is one moment, during a visit to Tamio’s old work place, where she turns and looks, it is a moment of such terrible sorrow, and yet Esumi’s face is blank, she barely moves, and there is no music to cue us in emotionally. Essentially, we the audience, project our own pain onto Esumi, and, in the process, we are cleansed (if only temporarily). Esumi’s minimalism matches that of filmmaker Koreeda’s for sure, Maborosi is one of those rare examples of when an actor’s aesthetic has integrated perfectly with the director’s, and an astonishing whole is created as a result. I can only think Koreeda handpicked Esumi for this particular film. Esumi is also a model, and although it’s difficult to say how much her model experience has impacted her acting, we may speculate that because of her modelling she is more used to being passive, as model’s are objectified, which makes her a natural for a role like Yumiko, whereas acting is traditionally about subjectivity and taking action. I should think though, her reserved expression is something which lies in her nature to a certain extent, and not something she grafted onto the performance.
Maborosi will be a difficult film for many, because of it's gentle rythmn and lack of exposition. However, it is a film of wonderful poetry, of grace and beauty, and one which enriches the viewer and makes him stronger. Esumi at the centre, is affirmation of human dignity, and of being classy, she is also another fine example of actor as artist. If only more directors thought along these lines instead of casting because you might "seem like a milkman". Koreeda is to be commended for the delicacy and precision of his aethetic, and for providing such a wonderful platform for the talent of Makiko Esumi.