Lost Souls In A Lost Decade: Maborosi And Koreeda’s Ozu Problem

Hirokazu Koreeda arrived with a sombre and stylish film about a woman readjusting to life after her husband’s suicide. But can Japan’s modern master of domestic dramas escape the shadow of Ozu? Adam Solomons investigates

The Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda, perhaps understandably, is a little tired of the comparisons to Yasujiro Ozu, his country’s post-war master of quiet, domesticated dramas. Perhaps understandably, although by now something of a cliché, those comparisons won’t go away.

Hundreds of column inches in the European and American film press have been spent outlining the ways in which Koreeda is a, if not the, spiritual successor to Ozu: the “wayward elder son”, “Ozu’s heir”, the old master’s “inheritor”.

These arguments fail to understand a number of key differences between the two filmmakers’ conceptions of Japan. For Ozu, his country was on a fast-paced, if sometimes confusing, journey into the future. For Koreeda, Japan is a stagnant society held together as much by its mythic past as any hope for tomorrow. His 1995 debut, Maborosi, makes that much clear.

Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) is a well-to-do Osaka mother with a months-old son, faithful husband Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano), and a seemingly stable life. But memories of her grandmother, who Yumiko as a child allowed to run away to her death, still haunt her dreams. “I’m not your grandma’s reincarnation”, Ikuo tells her wearily one night. “Go back to sleep.”

Little does he know. One day, Yumiko is visited by a police officer who says that, on his way home from work, Ikuo walked into a moving train. Yumiko’s grief is outweighed only by her puzzlement. Ikuo showed no apparent signs of depression or disillusionment. It’s possible that he fell victim to Japan’s so-called Lost Decade of economic standstill, in which the country’s newfound prosperity waned and the suicide rate shot upwards​. Nevertheless, Yumiko must adjust to the prospect of remarrying a kindly widowed father, and a world in which the ones she loves keep disappearing without explanation.

Koreeda’s films have since Maborosi been better regarded for their solemn tone more than any plot particularities. Indeed, his most recent Japanese film, Shoplifters, began production without an ending or a script. But Maborosi is based on a novel (by author Teru Miyamoto), and so the broader theme of grief isn’t all that propels the film, even if Koreeda’s more recent works have been a little more on-message.

That’s not to say there’s anything incoherent or muddled about Koreeda’s debut, which is atypically well-organised for a director’s first narrative effort. The same is true of his craft: Koreeda seems to have figured out exactly how he wants the camera to interact with his character – or, more truthfully, how to leave them alone. Roger Ebert wrote aptly in his review, “the camera does not move, but regards.”

There is an important hint at some of the differences between the Maborosi director and Ozu, whose films Koreeda has repeatedly told interviewers he “doesn’t understand”, preferring comparisons with Ken Loach. Ebert’s observation is supported by the passivity of Koreeda’s direction, which goes small on close-ups and is reluctant to suggest the inner thoughts of his characters; like Yumiko, we are left only to guess. As Anne Smiley famously asked her husband at the end of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, “Life’s a puzzle to you. Isn’t it, George?”

To Ozu and his characters, such mysteries are of little interest. His characters are primarily explorers of their feelings and desires, and we accompany them on those journeys. In the case of Tokyo Story, youngest daughter Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa) delivers her heartbreaking sentiment, “Isn’t life disappointing?” right above the lens. We’re lucky in a Koreeda film to see two characters even sitting across from each other. Particularly in Maborosi, he prefers to block side-to-side, while the actors stare into the distance and take it all in. “Maborosi” translates to “trick of the light”, the effect of seeing something that doesn’t exist quite as it appears, unknowably. The painful unknowability of Ikuo’s suicide – a feeling familiar to anyone who has lost a loved one in such a way – is carried further by the overwhelming feeling of uncertainty Koreeda set out to portray in Maborosi. As Yumiko asks at the film’s emotional climax, “Once I start thinking about it, I can’t stop. Why do you think he did it?” Her new husband Tamio tells her one of the most tragic truths there is: “I think it can happen to anyone.”

What’s also true of that scene is the darkness in which Koreeda and cinematographer Masao Nakabori bathe Yumiko and Tamio. In great contrast to Ozu, who typically lit his interiors brightly and built makeshift neon signs to light up a rare establishing shot, grey is the new black for much of Maborosi. In his influential essay “Sunny Skies”, critic Hasumi Shigehiko notes the stark lightness of even Ozu’s most melancholy set-ups – an intentional diversion from Japan’s year-round rainy weather. “There is no ambiguity in Ozu’s films to blur the outlines of things”, Shigehiko writes. “He is a broad-daylight director: rather than subtle nuances, he adheres to an excess of clarity.” Koreeda is always unclear, sometimes frustratingly so. Subtle nuances and seconds-long expressions of lifetimes of feeling are his main interest. The grey skies and the pitch-black rooms of Maborosi are his clearest visual mission statement of that intention.

Christine Marran, professor of modern Japanese literature and film, took that point further in a . She writes, “In the excessive clarity of Ozu’s films is revealed an extremely objective point of view.” Although I wouldn’t go so far as to doubt the sophistication of Ozu’s films, what’s clear of Koreeda’s impressive debut is that visual murkiness will indeed serve to illustrate the greyness of his characters’ feelings and motivations. The single biggest difference between Ozu and Koreeda is that the former filmmaker was never interested in greyness, and so never showed it to us. Maborosi is a searing exhibit of quite the opposite, with all the uncomfortable unclarity of human relations that goes with it. It’s no wonder that Koreeda used to make documentaries.

Thankfully, Maborosi isn’t one. 25 years after it first played on Europe’s film festival circuit, Koreeda’s compelling arrival remains a feather in the director’s cap, a poignant and incisive look at grief and confusion in an era where both flourished. (What changes?) Comparing Hirokazu Koreeda to Ozu will never be an insult. But it seems never to have been particularly close to the truth.

Maborosi will be released on Blu-ray via BFI on Monday 20 July

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