Václav Havel once wrote that hope is not the same thing as optimism, that "[hope] is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out." Hirokazu Kore-eda's Maborosi — his first feature film and still one of his finest — is about a woman whose life is disrupted by something senseless and awful, something for which there seems no answer to the question "Why?" What she finds is not an answer to that question, but something greater — a way to make sense of what happened to her, and other things like it, in a new and transformative way.
Now here, now gone
Any of us who is close to another harbors at least some fear of a day when that person will walk out of sight and never be seen again. Maborosi opens on such a note: an old woman, the grandmother of a girl named Yumiko, wanders out of her house. She ignores little Yumiko's pleas to come home, and is never seen again.
Years later, a fully grown Yumiko (Makiko Esumi), is happily married to a genial young man named Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano). They have an infant son, Yuichi, and they live simply but with great affection for each other. At one point Ikuo's bike is stolen, and he responds by stealing another one for himself from a relatively wealthy neighborhood and repainting it so it won't be spotted.
What's curious about these tender early scenes is how Kore-eda films them with great distance and coldness. There are no closeups, only medium shots at best. Shots begin and end in total darkness. We do hear peoples' voices — but they're also distant, muffled, as if from another room. They are receding over the horizon even as we first meet them, for reasons that become clearer as we go on. The acting is likewise subdued — something that landed with all the more contrast for me, since the last time I'd seen Esumi was by way of her mannered "Cinematic Kabuki" performance in Seijun Suzuki's Pistol Opera. And, finally, there's the way the camera lingers a little bit whenever the husband leaves the shot, as if to say: Get used to him being gone.
Then one night Ikuo doesn't come home from work, and the police appear at Yumiko's doorstep. They found a body that might be her husband. He was hit by a train, in an apparent suicide. What is most ghastly to Yumiko is not the fact of his suicide but the sheer inexplicability of it. He wasn't unhappy — was he? He didn't leave a note — at least, none that they could find, did they? But there are no answers, and so Yumiko sits in her room and stares at a spot between her feet.
Life's second act
Yumiko is not entirely alone. She has her mother, sensible and indefatigable, and she has the woman who runs the tailor's downstairs who is also a part-time matchmaker. Through her Yumiko meets a man who lives in a blustery little seaside village in Japan, a straightforward fellow who lost his wife to illness and has a daughter of his own. He brings Yumiko into his life, and she's welcomed in by the crusty locals and his rather large extended family. Kore-eda does not hurry any of this; he hangs back and observes, lets things unfold as they must.
At first, all seems well enough. Her son and her new daughter are overjoyed to have new playmates (Kore-eda coaxes lovely, unforced performances out of the child actors); her housework is rigorous but nothing she can't deal with; her new husband, affectionate and playful in a way that is reminiscent of Ikuo. But again, something seems off. When Yumiko returns home for her brother's wedding, she lingers at the door of their old apartment, and talks to the owner of the café where he stopped off for a drink on that last fateful night. For a moment I worried the film was going to fake us out and provide us with some ominous last words, but the movie does not flinch: Ikuo's death is still as great a mystery to us as it is to Yumiko.
All this becomes painfully clear to Yumiko on a blustery night when one of the locals, a stout-hearted old woman who still goes out fishing on her own, does not return. Yumiko's life has been haunted endlessly by the possibility that one day the ones she knows will simply walk out the door and never come back. Eventually, the old woman does come back, but that doesn't put Yumiko any more at ease. And then Kore-eda supplies us with a succession of scenes, mostly without dialogue, that give both Yumiko and us in the audience the perspective she has needed all this time.
Embodying the answer
I want to talk about those last scenes in detail, so skip this section if you want to see the film first. Yumiko flees her house and wanders aimlessly (at first it seems she's going to hop a bus, but she doesn't), and then encounters a funeral procession heading towards the shore. Neither she nor us know these people; the dead person is an absolute stranger. But in these shots, held at great length and shown at great distance, Kore-eda somehow makes something clear to us about the insight she must be having. Asking "why did my husband choose to die?" was, for Yumiko, the wrong question — the most pressing one, but not the right one. The real question is "how can I continue despite this?" The answer for that is all around her — the company she now keeps. Yes, even in the face of the fact that one day she might well be part of a procession leading the body of one of those people to the shore for their own funeral pyre.
Japanese authors have terribly hit-or-miss publishing records outside of Japan. Maborosi is an adaptation of a 1978 short story by Teru Miyamoto, who's been lucky enough to have that story, several others, and two of his novels all translated into English at various points. The original story is told as a first-person reminiscence by Yumiko, as a sort of confession to her dead husband. Kore-eda did not try to reproduce that effect, but he did hew remarkably close to the story's events, including much of its dialogue. Before reading the original, I speculated if the distancing effects Kore-eda used were also meant to reflect the original material; perhaps the story would have the same minimal, spare language of a Raymond Carver short. But all that is a stylistic choice on Kore-eda's part. Likewise the funeral march and seaside pyre that climax the film; they may be his idea, but they are entirely expressions of the story's original spirit by way of film language.
I am fondest of stories that present us not with answers but with possibilities. 2001: a space odyssey did not tell us what happened to David Bowman (or for that matter, the rest of humanity), but it showed us some clues and let us draw our own conclusions. The movie adaptation of Silent Hill does this for about three-fourths of its running time, but then makes the mistake of providing us with a flurry of answers to things that were better off left unanswered. But Maborosi doesn't waver. There's no surprise suicide note, no cheesy third-act twist involving the circumstances of Ikuo's death. The movie is entirely and resolutely about Yumiko moving forward into whatever life holds, about the making of her life into the answer to a question that refuses to have one.