Maborosi opens with a somewhat peculiar side-story. An old woman leaves home, against the protestations of her family, because she wants to die in her hometown. She wanders away and is never seen again. This section of Maborosi is completely unrelated to the balance of the story, and is never referred to for the balance of the film. So why is it there? The film is, I believe, foreshadowing for us an instance where a family member is suddenly simply gone.
Hirokazu doesn’t rush into his story. The film stays with the young couple, as they live their lives. We watch them eating meals, going out for coffee, and enjoying a nighttime bicycle ride together. There’s a cryptic little conversation that they have where he speaks of a retired Suno wrestler who has come to work at his factory, and hasn’t cut his topknot off yet. When Ikuo confesses, “Seeing his topknot depresses me” it’s such a strange comment that we step back a bit. It seems like an admission that Ikuo is troubled by something more than a hairdo.
Then, tragedy strikes. Yumiko is waiting at home when the police come to the door to inform her that Ikuo has committed suicide. There is no indication of the reason for this act to us or to Yumiko, and there is no outpouring of grief. It’s left to the viewer to guess at her feelings.
Then, the film skips forward a few years, and Yumiko is preparing to go away to meet a new husband. This appears to be an arranged marriage, although the film is vague on this point. Her new life will be with a man named Tamio and his young daughter in a small fishing village many miles from her Osaka home.
The contrast between her old and new lives is stark, and Hirokazu accentuates it with long Ozu-like “pillow” shots of the fishing village and the sea. Tamio is a good man, who has lost his wife, and he and Yumiko settle into a comfortable life together. Again, the film settles back and watches the two newlyweds as they grow together. There are also moments with the two children as they play together, bonding quickly as only kids can do. There’s a gorgeous extended scene where the two children run beside a mirror-like reservoir, laughing in delight as they go. These scenes point up the fact that the children have accepted each other, and are just getting on with things.
Yumiko then makes a trip back to Osaka for her brother’s wedding, and being in her old home triggers a flood of remembrances of Ikuo. She visits the coffee house where they used to go, and the server tells her that Ikuo came there the day he died. She goes to his old factory and peers in the window, recreating a tender moment that they shared on a day he was working there. She stops by their old apartment building. Again, there is no outward indication of what she is thinking during these visits. That’s left to us to ponder.
She returns to the village and resumes life, although now the buried emotions of Ikuo are at the surface, and Tamio senses that there is something bothering her. There’s a marvelous little scene where she fondles a bicycle bell that she had bought for Ikuo, and quickly hides it when Tamio comes into the room.
The film has one more instance of a person vanishing out of Yumiko’s life. This time it’s an elderly fisherwoman who goes out alone to catch some crabs and gets caught in a storm. The village waits for word from her, but Tamio’s father reassures Yumiko that she will be all right. He states, “She’ll be okay. She is immortal.” and sure enough, she comes back home safely.
Yumiko is walking along the water one day, when she encounters a funeral procession. In an exquisite long shot we see that she joins in at the end of it, and then Tomio comes to find her alone on the rocky shoreline. Here, finally, is where the floodgates open. She cries, “I just don’t understand – Why did he kill himself?” and Tomio replies with a legend about how fishermen are sometimes lured out to sea by a maborosi, or ghost light.
Maborosi is a soft and beautiful film about how we process grief, and how we have to sometimes get on with our lives without knowing all the answers. Tamio’s story doesn’t really answer Yumiko’s question, and it’s not really supposed to.
If I have made this film sound depressing and dark, it’s anything but. It lingers on scenes of quiet domestic bliss, like the family eating watermelon together, or of Yumiko combing her new daughter’s hair. The film’s coda is such a moment as well, and it is pitch-perfect. The camera observes from across the water as Tomio teaches his son how to use his new toy – a bicycle.