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teaser Maborosi (1995)

If still waters run deep, then Maborosi (1995), the feature debut of Hirokazu Koreeda, is an ocean: a glassy, gorgeous surface concealing an unfathomable depth.

Maborosi (the title loosely translates to "illusion" or "mirage") is the story of the loss that young mother and widow Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) endures after the sudden death - a possible suicide - of her seemingly happy husband Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano). She mourns and remarries, relocating from her grungy urban apartment in Osaka to the beautiful home of a gentle widower (Takashi Naito) in a remote coastal town. An older man, he accepts her and her young son unconditionally, and her energetic young son thrives in the new environment, full of endless fields and rolling hills and beautiful beachside vistas. But Yumiko continues to be haunted by the loss of Ikuo and the questions left behind after his death - did he kill himself, and if so why did he choose to leave her and their son?

Koreeda paints his world in light and shadow, creating an easy naturalism from delicate images and privileged moments, which he shoots at a remove. He sets his camera back to observe the characters in their environments in long shots that play out in long, placid takes with little or no dialogue, noting the way they share space and emotions and interact with the naturalness of lived-in intimacy. When the film moves from the city to the seaside, Koreeda uses the natural light to suggest the serenity of life there, giving the scenes a painterly quality as the quality of light suggests both the passing of time and the eternal world.

"What I wanted to do in my film is to explore the sense of loss that one woman carried with her, independent of the poverty of the times or even her own poverty," explained the director in an interview. "I thought that way I could achieve a pure portrayal of this loss. For my generation, as well as Makiko Esumi's generation, there is a feeling of a lack of certainty about anything--a universal undefined feeling of loss."

He chose to communicate the relationship between Ikuo and Yumiko visually, through the space they shared on screen. He staged them side by side in most scenes, facing the same direction rather than facing each other, "to show them sharing an emotion," and he shot many of their scenes together in long shot, removed and at a distance. "I wanted to save the moment they faced each other as a significant and special occasion."

Koreeda came to Maborosi after establishing himself in a series of documentaries on contemporary Japanese social culture for television, including portraits of the first person in Japan to go public with AIDS and a Korean man who "passed" as Japanese for decades. For his leading lady he cast first time actress Makiko Esumi, a fashion model who was introduced to Koreeda by a photographer friend. "I was struck by the strength in her eyes. When we were talking face to face--looking into each other's eyes--I felt a very strong will in her as a woman. I felt that she was a person who did things with a strong personal philosophy and belief." She makes an impressive film debut under Koreeda.

Tadanobu Asano, who plays Ikuo, the husband who dies early in the film and haunts her memories, went on to become one of Japan's most interesting leading men, starring in such notable films as Nagisa Oshima's Taboo (1999), Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer (2001) and Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi (2003). He made his English language debut playing Hogun, on of the fun-loving "Warriors Three" in the 2011 superhero movie Thor.

"In making Maborosi, I really thought hard about how I could get this film to be seen by the world as just that--purely a film," reflects the director. "I thought hard about where to show it; what kind of route I should take; and how I could make a film that can live up to that achievement. It's a question of how to keep it going, especially now, because directors like Ozu, Naruse and Mizoguchi are continuously being shown around the world and that's very important. But what's even more important for me is to figure out how the films of young contemporary Japanese directors can follow in their footsteps and continue in their path."

Maborosi won numerous international awards, including the Golden Osella for Best Director at the 1995 Venice Film Festival (which he shared with Kenneth Branagh and Iranian director Abolfazl Jalili), and it launched a brilliant career for the director. Koreeda went on to direct some of the most internationally celebrated films to come out of Japan, among them 1998's After Life (set in the way station between Earth and Heaven), 2004's Nobody Knows (about children surviving on their own after their single mother abandons them) and 2008's Still Walking (a family gathers to commemorate the death of a son/brother who died years before). What they have in common, besides Koreeda's compassion and intimacy and graceful direction, are themes of death, loss and abandonment, and the people left behind finding what they need to pull together and go on. Those themes can be traced right back to Maborosi, the wellspring of this great Japanese director.

Producer: Naoe Gozu
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Screenplay: Yoshihisa Ogita; Teru Miyamoto (novel)
Cinematography: Masao Nakabori
Art Direction: Kyko Heya
Music: Ming Chang Chen
Film Editing: Tomoyo Oshima
Cast: Makiko Esumi (Yumiko), Takashi Nait (Tamio), Tadanobu Asano (Ikuo), Gohki Kashiyama (Yuichi), Naomi Watanabe (Tomoko), Midori Kiuchi (Michiko), Akira Emoto (Yoshihiro), Mutsuko Sakura (Tomeno), Hidekazu Akai (Master), Hiromi Ichida (Hatsuko).

by Sean Axmaker

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