Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1995 film Maborosi is at its center a film about expression, or rather the inability of one woman to express her grief for her lost loved ones. The film is extremely adept at immediately creating a tone of quiet sadness. I cannot separate those two words; quiet, and sadness. They are completely intertwined into the structure of Maborosi. The film has little dialogue, and the extensive use of the long shot serves to outline Yumiko’s emotional distance from almost everybody else in the film.
The first twenty or so minutes of the film after the opening credits the film is set up almost entirely of medium-long shots (never getting too close to its characters). The use of the camera serves to bring us into this world of two young people deeply in love (and deep in poverty, and deep in inner turmoil, among other things), but only so very slightly. After the turning point in the film the camera, defying normal convention, moves away from the characters. The last hour-and-a-half of the film is made almost entirely of extreme long shots. Yumiko is unable to express her grief, she thus creates a fissure between her and every person she develops a close relationship to (or whoever attempts to get close to her). By outlining Yumiko’s distance from her loved ones the film forces us into her perspective. Eventually, the film is Yumiko. Everything she feels the audience feels, and every painful memory she has becomes our painful memory. It’s a film that can be dissected from almost all angles; it holds an astounding depth, and beauty. One of the true rare gems in film.
Thanks. It really helps to lay out the ways the shots change very clearly, because on first viewing such things are not always apparent as one gets lost in the solitude of the film and isn’t even aware how Kore-eda creates this seemingly magical feeling of identification with the character. I’m always interested in films which place the spectator into a character’s position, but understanding how they do it is hard for me given my lack of technical film training, and your explanation is helpful in that regard, without in any way diminishing the emotional heart of a film which is hardly reliant on technical flourishes for their own sake but uses a clearly defined pattern to convey that distance.
There is certainly a lot to discuss in this film. As we were talking about earlier, the music alone could fill a book, and the choice of shots and their meaning on the narrative could fill a few others. It’s difficult to synthesize that into two paragraphs, but that’s why we did this… to discuss the film.
So, I thank you sir, Paul for responding.
I really need to re-watch Maborosi to relive its beauty. You’re right about the lack of close-ups though, from what I remember of the film. Aren’t close-ups usually used to engage viewers to the characters? Kore-eda achieved this wonderfully while maintaining distance like you said. A perfect meditation on the effects of death. :(
There is a single close-up in the film. Its on the side of Makiko Esumi’s face ( spoilers ) as she’s being driven to identify her husband’s body.
And yes, close-ups are conventionally used to endear one to characters, but this film hardly needs to follow any convention to make us care for its lead.
I think that one is the close-up Col. Dax is talking about:
I believe Kenji is the one on this site that wrote, quite beautifully, that the sky is gently weeping because Yumiko’s character cannot find it in her to weep for her husband.
The camera’s maintaining of a certain distance itself evokes the emotional distance among people of contemporary Japanese society. The key social foundation of contemporary Japanese society is order. Suicide, paradoxically enough, helps maintain this obsession with orderliness. The film does not delve into the nature of Yumiko’s first husband’s suicide. In fact, there is very little to discuss because he committed suicide without an explanation. Rather than propagating some kind of complex and overbearing interpersonal drama, he chose to kill himself. And then Yumiko perpetuates this inability—or unwillingness—to communicate… This is the central tragedy in this film—that the obsession with keeping things orderly and with having to curb outward expression of one’s feelings can lead to this kind of cycle of unspoken sadness.
A beautiful description indeed. She´s of course unable to understand his suicide and delays her own emotional reaction until very late in the film. Kore-eda perfectly displays those understated emotions by using metaphorical devices, and I´m sure that one has to see the film repeated times in order to capture its true meaning.
The camera always regards Yumiko from a distance or in shadow while the rest of the frame is blessed in light. The funeral shot is almost 5 min. long and taken from a great distance – framed by sky, sea and earth. Beautiful.
This is the central tragedy in this film—that the obsession with keeping things orderly and with having to curb outward expression of one’s feelings can lead to this kind of cycle of unspoken sadness.
So let it out, and you’ll be happy?
I interpreted the film as an acceptance of the order of things – especially confirmed in the last few scenes
“So let it out, and you’ll be happy?”
Not necessarily, but wouldn’t it have been preferable for the first husband to have engaged his wife at least before committing suicide out of the blue with no explanation? Let it out, and then there’s at least the possibility of dealing with it, no?
By the way, the film is a brilliant masterpiece because it captures this very unwillingness/inability to communicate.
committing suicide out of the blue with no explanation
There ^ is, for me, the central theme of the film: uncertainty
There is sadness of loss – but overriding that is uncertainty.
In the opening scene an elderly woman is crossing a bridge (transitional symbol) and pulls away from her grand-daughter (she was emotional) to go to the land where she will die. This was incredibly powerful and I thought it would foreshadow the rest of the film.
At the end we hear children expressing emotion, so the opening metaphor is completed: we must learn to accept the order of things.
We aren’t that different except for the conclusion.
No, we arent, which is why I don’t even understand why you said something like “So let it out, and you’ll be happy?” in first place. It kind of distorts and trivializes what I was trying to say, don’t you think?
No, it is a corollary to what you said: a corollary is a statement which follows readily from a previous statement.
From an interview with indieWIRE:
indieWIRE: What about “Maborosi No Kikari” [the novel by Teru Miyamoto upon which “Maborosi” is based] inspired you to use it as source material?
Hirokazu Kore-Eda: About five years ago, for one of my documentaries, I interviewed a woman whose husband had committed suicide. Through this interview, I took a deep interest in how people cope with the loss of someone close, how they work through their grief and mourning. The story by Teru Miyamoto was also based on this theme of mourning. I read the story at twenty, and liked it. It was my interest in death and grief born from that documentary, along with my love for the original story, that prompted me to make the film.
iW: I was impressed by your use of lighting and sense of composition. How do You feel such elements fit into narrative cinematic storytelling?
Kore-Eda: The way I envisioned the film was not to show Yumiko’s change of emotion through narration, or to explain her feelings through close-ups. I constructed every scene in this film not for the purpose of telling her story, but to invite the audience to feel the light, the sound and the darkness that Yumiko was feeling at that moment. I wanted to portray the change within her by depicting the changes of light and shadow that surrounded her. The lighting and the composition of the shots were not intended to tell the story, but to evoke Yumiko’s interior landscape.
iW: Do you think that the subtleties of your film, and it’s sense of composition and lighting and cinematography, enhance or detract from it’s treatment of suicide, loss, and poverty?
Kore-Eda: I had no intention of using obvious lighting devices such as bluish light to evoke suspense. I wanted to shoot the film in natural light. As a concept, one thing that I was thinking about was, in the first half of the film, Yumiko is surrounded by a womb-like darkness. When she begins her life with her second husband, light begins to seep into her surroundings. It’s not so much that the lighting is there to reinforce the theme, rather the gradual change in the light itself was a theme of the movie.
iW: You use different types of shots – the long shot between Ikuo and Yumiko At the factory, for example – to convey elaborate emotions.
Kore-Eda: There are upwards of 300 shots in this movie. I did the story board for every single one of them. I planned what kind of light there would be and what kinds of sounds would be heard in each of the shots. I had a great time doing it. Using the sound of the bicycle, the bell, the wind and the light of a bulb; using things that surround us in everyday life, I attempted to portray the space and time inhabited by Yumiko. In the scene where Yumiko goes to visit Ikuo at the factory, they look at each other through the window. This is [sic] the one scene where I changed my style of shooting. This is [sic] the only moment in the entire movie Yumiko and Ikuo face each other— and I wanted to emphasize this moment by breaking the style of the film and going in closer on each of them.
I attempted to portray the space and time inhabited by Yumiko
Critics said this:
Holden: entering the consciousness of the main character and seeing through her eyes, all without really knowing her
Ebert: where you have to actively place yourself in the character’s mind
in the character’s mind is not what was intended – one was supposed to be in their space, which is how I perceived the film.
I can’t comment on Maborosi seeing that I’ve only seen small clips of it and watched the Siskel and Ebert review. My comment is: isn’t it so frustrating that Kore-eda’s work isn’t receiving the DVD releases they truly deserve? Besides Takeshi Kitano, Hayao Miyazaki or Takashi Miike or other Japanese directors, Kore-eda’s imagination in his Still Walking or After Life is just incredible. Work like his should receive more coverage in the US or Europe… it’s such a pity that you really have to go and look hard to find a decent quality DVD of his work.
Companies like the Criterion Collection, Eureka or Kino should try to get the distribution rights because he isn’t under-rated. It’s just not enough people are seeing his work.
Erm, well obviously it’s a personal favourite and i hope it was a worthwhile world cup discovery for people. No it wasn’t me who said about the sky gently weeping, Col Dax, can’t give myself undue credit! I’ve come to this thread from an Angelopoulos one and some have compared Maborosi to him, though the lack of close ups is like 30s Mizoguchi (eg Straits of Love and Hate), while the greater restraint, the significance of objects, sense of off-screen space and some of the set-ups are more like Ozu. Well, actually Mizoguchi and Angelopoulos are ones for off-screen space too, but it seems to have the best qualities of all 3 directors which is saying a helluva lot! The lighting is exquisite. And it ends at the eternal ever mysterious sea, another plus. My top film of the last 20 years. Donald Richie rates it highly
Interestingly enough, Koreeda has stated Naruse to be a main influence. They both seem to exemplify the concept ‘mono no aware’ – the awareness/transience of things which always seem to conclude with a bittersweet sadness at their passing. Both filmmakers successfully augment the everyday drama of Japanese people’s tribulations.
So I just wrote this:
So, the music in the film is as good as film music gets. There are 5 songs used in the film (going on memory), and only one of them is used more than twice (most are used only once, and some only last a few seconds on screen). The music is used as a coda between scenes, but at the same time represents a distinct feeling in the film.
The first song is a rather pretty repeating singular riff. It beautifully mixes traditional Japanese instrumentation (the shamisen) with western influence (in this case synth instrumentation) (much like the film combines influence from Japanese masters (Ozu, Mizoguchi), and European ones (Antonioni, Angelopoulos)). It is used as a bicycle theme. The first time we hear it it seems rather playful, if not a little portentous. The second time it’s played that feeling you get from listening to it the first, the sort of anxious melancholy, is multiplied by about 1000! (which is one thousand factorial, not an emphatic one thousand).
The next song is played only once. It is the progenitor of the entire narrative of the film, but you wouldn’t know it by how simple, joyous and beautiful it is. It’s a solo guitar piece. It is played once in the film, and stands as the single genuinely ‘happy’ song, although it has a beautiful bridge piece written in that is simply gorgeous in how much it mirrors the sadness of our protagonist. It accompanies images of a rapturous mother bathing her adorable baby. The scene after this sets in motion the entirety of the rest of the film.
The next time we hear music is a repeat of the first song. As I said earlier it is an intensely emotional scene, even in its utter simplicity.
The next song is a solo piano piece, played three times in the film, more than any other song. One of the most beautiful pieces I’ve heard scored for a film. It’s incredible simple, very sorrowful, but maintains a bit of hope in it. It’s a repeated rhythm played over a gorgeous melody. It very consciously mirrors the tone of the film, more perfectly than almost any other piece for any other film.
The next piece of music in the film is diegetic. It is a celebratory song sung, and clapped along, to usher in the marital bonds of our protagonist and her second husband.
After this the next time we hear music it is, again, diegetic. The stepchildren singing a, what I assume to be a song reserved for the younger generation in Japan. It is first sung, and then heard played (off-key) in a piano in the background of the next scene. It is very rhythmic, and flows well with the slight happiness our protagonist feels in her new situation (things seem to be getting better for her, and this little song reflects that).
The next song is a repeat of the piano piece. It is a shift in the film. This time the piece seems to represent a moment of reflection, but an extremely painful, and sorrowful one at that. The hope we may have heard in the song the first time we heard it (over 30 minutes ago) seems to be gone now. Again, beautifully mirroring the turmoil of the protagonist.
The next piece starts off with bells. It feels almost diegetic as it is following a funeral procession and we could easily imagine small bells being rung for the dead. Eventually we realize this sound is merely an introduction for the saddest song in the film. It makes me cry every time. It is a duet between a flute of some kind (possibly a shakuhachi, but it seems a tuned in a lower register than a normal shakuhachi), and an instrument I’m not quite certain of, though I would be willing to bet it’s a koto (my extreme lack of knowledge pertaining to eastern instrumentation is showing right now, I apologize). It is the song that leads us to the climax in the film. In the moment in which we feel the most sorrow, pain, and feel we understand the least this song again perfectly encapsulates this feeling for us.
The film then ends on the piano piece. This time the song seems almost joyful, but the sorrowful nature of the piece is still very much there.
The songs themselves are mirrors for us. Not telling what to feel, but rather intensifying the emotions the film has already provided us with.
Since there is already a thread on the film I thought those that wanted to might want to discuss specific parts of the film (music right now, we’ll move on from here if we’re successful) to give us all a bit of a deeper understanding of the film. I started us off with this kind of introduction into the music in the film, and after we all feel we’ve gone as far as we can on this particular element in the film we’ll move to another.
Is anyone interested in this? Let’s get going if you are. Just post any thought you have about the music, for now.
i really, really enjoyed this movie. the medium and long shots create a sense, at least to me, that one is observing someone going through a period of intense and inexpressible grief without invading their privacy or becoming too intimate with the characters. the backgrounds don’t distract in the least and the director doesn’t have to rely on facial expressions to convey emotion over loss. I also liked how he seemed to use alot of natural and subdued lighting which adds to the mood of sadness and loss. This movie has actually inspired me a great deal in photography.
Just saw this for the second time (I saw it initially several years ago), mainly because several of you loved this. (The film never grabbed me the first time, and I’m not sure if it did on the second.) I just wanted to express a different interpretation from Dax.
For one thing, I never really felt like Yumiko was having difficulty expressing her sadness and loss. Right after her husband dies, she’s clearly grieving, but then her mother gives her this rather insensitive “pep” talk. Yumiko doesn’t really say much, and she soon gets married her second husband. Now, my current reading of her going to the fishing village is that she’s starting a new life—and by all appearances she’s happy. She’s easily laughing and enjoying herself when she’s riding in the car with her husband; when she meets the people in the village; and when friends and family sing at her wedding. Her son and new step-daughter are getting along well, too. To me, there was no sign that she’s struggling with sadness. The film seems to be saying that she’s moving one with her life and it’s good.
But then she goes back to Osaka and the memories of her husband—particularly the remaining mystery of the reason her husband killed himself—and her new happy life is shattered. When she goes back, her grief is now clearly evident—even though she doesn’t talk about it. At that point, I would agree that she’s struggling to express or at least deal with her husband’s suicide. Here the film seems to be saying that you can’t really bury and run from these kinds of things.
When she finally asks her second husband to explain his first husband’s death. He says something about the way the ocean has the power to beguile us; and how the Maborosi—the strange lights out at sea—something within it—calling out to his father (when the father was still an active fisherman). And then he says that that happens to all of us.
After this, life seems to return to normal (as it was prior to her Yumiko returning to Osaka). We see the kids playing with the second husband; Yumiko asks a mundane question about the weather to her father-in-law, and he gives a mundane response.
I don’t know if things are now alright, but the second husband’s answer seems to suggest that there is some unexplainable spiritual force—e.g. nature, God, the universe, etc.—that calls out to us and sometimes we respond. But it’s still a mysterious thing that’s unexplainable.
Now, Dax talked about the long shots, particularly in the fishing village. Based on that line about the ocean, I interpreted the long-shots to be a kind of observation from…the spirits or what have you. There’s a bunch of shots from the ocean of the house and drive way. There’s several shots looking down on the whole village. I didn’t think these shots communicated Yumiko’s emotional distance to others (because she was fairly open and engaging with her new husband—there’s an intimate and playful scene where she’s sitting between his legs and they’re both practically naked, and others like it), as much as the notion that the humans are being observed. Consider how the ocean sounds also dominate the scenes in the fishing village scenes. (Yumiko also says the ocean is awesome and her new husband says something like, “Maybe too awesome.”)
(Along with the ocean as some kind of spiritual force, there’s the scene where the old fisher woman goes out to sea, and takes a long time coming back. Yumiko is worried, but the old lady does come back. Her husband and other remark, prior to the lady’s return, that she’s “eternal.”)
One other thing. A part of me feels that just as the ocean is crucial in the fishing village, the train plays a parallel role in the urban setting. The loud roaring and rumbling of the train are in many of the scenes; the train kills her husband; they ride a train to and from the fishing village. Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but I sense there might be something to this.
In any event, I may just watch this again and consider the interpretation of those presented here.
I’ll be doing every Kore-eda film in chronological order (and writing a few words about them later). Last night did Maborosi. I think Blue K’s words above sound very accurate, and it makes me a bit annoyed to have to write about an aesthetic I cannot fully experience as a westerner, or perhaps just a non-Japanese. I have mostly only viewed Japanese interpersonal relationships as a voyeur. (I do have a good friend over there now living with a Japanese woman and he has no intention of leaving. If I ever have disposable income, I’ll visit.)
Lots of distance between east and west. I have much to learn. But I’ve always felt the Japanese and Americans have something special in common.
First impressions: http://killerstencil.com/2012/06/03/daily-notes-2012-06/
Hm, as per that very illuminating Kore-eda interview above:
“I constructed every scene in this film not for the purpose of telling her story, but to invite the audience to feel the light, the sound and the darkness that Yumiko was feeling at that moment.”
A-HA. Now that explains everything. It felt like the film was entirely mise-en-scène because it was. “Interior landscapes.”
Just encountered the term “mono no aware,” and know I’ll be liking this one quite a lot.
Boy, what ever happened to Col. Dax? He was insightful.
unless i am badly mistaken col. dax is still here ;) i should watch this again. i recorded it off tv and it looked like crap but the screenshots i have seen are stunning. makes me feel like i haven’t watched it at all :\
This is a film which feels like a forthcoming Criterion. High art house acclaim, just old enough, woefully out of print, last domestic release being a pitiful transfer, and from a director they’ve already released.