Combustible Celluloid
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With: Makiko Esumi, Takashi Naito, Tadanobu Asano, Gohki Kashiyama, Naomi Watanabe, Midori Kiuchi, Akira Emoto, Mutsuko Sakura, Hidekazu Akai, Hiromi Ichida
Written by: Yoshihisa Ogita, based on a novel by Teru Miyamoto
Directed by: Hirokazu Kore-eda
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Japanese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 110
Date: 03/21/1997

Maborosi (1995)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

By the Sea

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This feature debut by Hirokazu Kore-eda highlights his appreciation for Yasujiro Ozu, which has its plusses and minuses. Though Maborosi is assured in its every frame, it still feels as if Kore-eda were a little unsure, a little unformed, and leaning a little too hard on ideas borrowed from Ozu to brace himself. But at the same time, how many other filmmakers have ever come even remotely this close to replicating that special Ozu touch? To be sure, for viewers that know and love Ozu's work, Maborosi is a pure pleasure to watch. In it, Kore-eda begins his mature explorations of death and family, and he is even able to go a little farther than Ozu with is inclusion of sex as a factor.

It begins with its main character, Yumiko, as a child, possibly blaming herself for her grandmother's wandering off and dying. Years later, the beautiful 20 year-old Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) is happily married to the dreamy Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano), and they have a new baby. Ikuo likes to lay on the floor and listen to the elderly, deaf neighbor's loud radio. He steals a bike to make up for the one stolen by him, imagining that there is perhaps a long chain of stolen bikes, and Yumiko helps him paint it green. Then, without warning, tragedy strikes and Ikuo is dead, killed on the train tracks. Was it an accident? Or suicide?

Five years later, thanks to a matchmaker, Yumiko has remarried, to widower Tamio (Takashi Naitoh), who has a young daughter. They move from Osaka to a small fishing village, where the sea laps up onto a slope of concrete. Life goes on. The children play near the water, and the boy plays catch with himself with a ball on the concrete hill. Dogs run about. Summer comes, and it's very hot. Yumiko and Tamio lay near a fan in their underwear, thinking about making love, but thwarted by the heat. Winter comes and it's very cold. An old fisherlady goes out for crab and is seemingly lost at sea. But then Yumiko finds her late husband's bicycle bell, and it makes her think again. She goes to a sheltered bus stop and watches a funeral procession. A final exchange between she and her husband contains words that are both profound and fleeting, possibly meaningless. But then, sometimes there are no answers.

Kore-eda films everything in wide shots with few, if any, close-ups and only one or two camera movements that I could detect. (He pans across a lake as the children run along its banks.) He also includes some of Ozu's "pillow shots," such as shots of trains or laundry hanging or tea kettles, which are meant to provide a pause or a breath between scenes. The color palette runs toward dark, with characters frequently wearing black, and blue and green the primary colors. The soundtrack consists of soft string music, as well as the sounds of the sea. It's relaxing, meditative filmmaking. It's not all happy, but it considers death in a way that's thoughtful and poetic, rather than soapy or hysterical. To confess the truth, as I finished watching, I felt an overwhelming peace.

Kore-eda's subsequent career has been up and down, though he recently won the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but his ups have been worth noting, and worth experiencing. Milestone has given Maborosi a new restoration and a 2018 Blu-ray release, and, if you consider that the colors are not supposed to be bold, it's a gorgeous piece of work. It includes a scholarly commentary track by Linda Ehrlich, a new subtitle translation, and a 30-minute featurette called Birthplace, which has Makiko Esumi wandering around, looking at locations.

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