A young Japanese woman discovers that remarriage can be fraught with conflict and unresolved emotional strain in the debut fiction film from Palm d’Or winner Hirokazu Kore-eda. When Yumiko’s husband is found dead on the nearby train tracks, she’s left to care for her newborn son alone and ponder over the mysterious circumstances clouding her husband’s potential suicide. A doting neighbor sets her up with a second husband some years later, and Yumiko tries to forge a new life with him, his parents, and his daughter from a previous marriage, in the idyllic seaside town of Wajima.
Maborosi doesn’t feature Kore-eda’s usual slate of regulars he’d develop later in his career, but it does feature a stirring performance from its lead Makiko Esumi. Effortlessly endearing, her quiet moments of giggly charm she shares fleetingly with first husband Ikuo (a lazily like-able Tadanobu Asano) give way to eerie melancholy and restraint remarkably as Yumiko forges her newfound path.
Kore-eda’s first fictional feature is steeped with precision, and it’s a marvel that the delicacy of his formal techniques shines just as bright in his earlier films as it does in his acclaimed 2018 opus Shoplifters. The director’s background is in documentary films, which remains absolutely apparent in his first foray into drama. Less an intricately constructed mesh of scripting and wrought performances, Kore-eda’s filmography commonly exudes the tone of happenstance film-making, as if a camera and tripod have been left to gather dust in a family home and accidentally left running.
Each vague gesture towards conflict soon dissolves to a warm center of family rituals and respect, with the first time fiction director calmly sitting back to let the unconventional family construct their own narratives. The filming and naturalistic performances feel incidental yet never flippant, and the subdued melodrama of its later moments veer into heightened territory but never embody anything less than the interpersonal friction of real domesticity. Maborosi is intensely intimate but usually bereft of any close-ups. Instead, the camera hangs back for tranquil scenery shots, or immerses itself in the center of the preceding drama, to again capture objectively and without judgement the staging of a newly birthed family.
One climactic shot involving snow, wind, and a funeral procession is particularly about as artistically accomplished as any all-timer you might find in a Bergman or Tarkovsky feature. Yet, at the hands of a first time fiction filmmaker, it feels entirely without portent, as if Kore-eda just happened across one of the most majestic and natural sights ever captured on film.
Perhaps it’s this visual tone that contributes so greatly to the immense sense of nostalgia present in the majority of his films. After discovering the current torch-bearer of the Japanese indie scene with Our Little Sister and his aforementioned Shoplifters, I’ve been tearing through his back catalog having found a peerless weaver of intimate insight into contemporary Japanese life. Each one of his films makes me nostalgic for a life I’ve never lived, a country I’ve never stepped foot in, and a family I’ve never met.
I grew up in a seaside town. Technically a city, but the five-minute walk from home to beach and the close proximity I had to my school friends made my childhood surroundings feel like a tight-knit maritime village. Watching Maborosi at the BFI truly felt like going home, in the uncannily intimate and resonant way only Kore-eda seems to be able to construct at his will.
Those who have lived by the seafront develop an unspoken reverence towards their surroundings. It can be a precarious life, especially in the company of seafarers who know that there’s every possibility, however slim, that their next venture into open water could be their last. Maborosi smartly off-kilters its dramatic proceedings with a morbid overthrow in the opening minutes. Yumiko becomes convinced that death is following in her footsteps, and the relentless lapping of sea waves just outside her new backdoor becomes enshrined as a symbolic reminder of past traumas and potential new tragedy.
As the shore becomes more increasingly tempestuous, as does Yumiko’s new arranged marriage grow with complexity. Kore-eda understands above everything the importance of family and community, with many of his films centering on unconventional units of individuals related by something that bypasses blood to become something even more palpable. Whether it’s circumstance or necessity that brings these people together, Kore-eda without fail explores the ensuing relationships with unquestioned empathy.
The layering of implications that accompanies an arranged marriage is no different. One second the couple are entangled in a pile of post-sex sweat and limbs, the next bickering over kept trinkets from past lives. Importantly, the practice is never condemned or supported, their new partnership simply is, and now they have to live with it, as well as the lingering specters of their past romances.
Kore-eda would go on to explore Japanese spiritual traditions in more depth in his later work, but consider Maborosi a vital artifact to the celebrated director’s first efforts that plants the seed of a fascination with mortality. A deeply moving musing on how un-foretold death resonates in the corporeal world, it would make for an intriguing double feature when paired with his follow-up After Life, which speculates on the passing of life through the spirit world.
It’s an honest-to-goodness marvel that Maborosi is a feature debut. Whilst his later films definitely embody a sense of finding ones feet in terms of casting, filming, and narrative, all of Kore-eda’s signatures are present and accounted for here. If Shoplifters has made you a fan of the modern Japanese auteur, Maborosi will feel like coming home.