Walking Toward Life

By Tim Winterstein

One thing you notice about Hirokazu Kore-eda’s debut as a director of a feature film (he made three documentaries) is his patience. Maborosi (1995; I watched it with a free trial of Fandor on Amazon Prime) shows that patience from the very beginning. I didn’t count, but I’d guess that the vast majority of shots in the film were static. Even most of the moving shots are done from one vantage point. The camera simply observes. The activity takes place in the frame, rather than being created by the camera. Kore-eda alternates how we observe, from intimate close-ups of people to more distant, wide shots of a scene.

We are within the story as well as simply observers of another life. And isn’t that how life is, anyway? We rotate within a nexus of relationships, in and out, sometimes close to those others, at other times separated. And others do the same as their orbits intersect with our own. Other stories are similar to ours, but they are not exactly the same. At times we think we know others as intimately as one person can be known to another person, but then a word or an action remakes us as near strangers.

I don’t often find movies poetic. Maybe Terrence Malick comes closest of those with whom I’m familiar. But Kore-eda’s films are inherently poetic, setting scenes of weather, nature, and familial intimacy, but bringing out the poetry within those seemingly mundane situations. And maybe it’s not that he brings out the poetry, but that he simply highlights the poetry already present—poetry that we wouldn’t otherwise see. Isn’t that what poetry does when it’s at its best? It shows us something familiar from another angle, imbued with a beauty we hadn’t noticed.

In the first third of the film, where Yumiko lives happily with her husband, Tomio, and her young son, Yuichi, everything is narrow: streets, alleys, tunnels, marketplaces, bridges, and sidewalks. But they laugh and enjoy their daily routine. Nothing seems amiss until the police knock on her door and ask her to come and determine whether the dead man they found is indeed her husband. The police indicate that it was suicide because of the circumstances. Her world is narrowed even more until the seamstress who takes care of Yuichi acts as matchmaker for the young widow.

In the last two-thirds of the movie, everything opens up: the children run freely, the ocean is vast, the land is open and large. And it’s between those two worlds that Yumiko finds herself pulled. If this were an American film, I suspect that the new husband would be abusive, the children wouldn’t get along, and the wife would leave to go her own way. But the new husband, Ikuo, and his father are loving to Yumiko and Yuichi, and Yumiko loves her step-daughter, Tomoko.

There would be no struggle for Yumiko between longing for her dead husband and caring for her living family if her new husband and life were horrible. Twice, Ikuo asks her if she wants to go back because she hates it there. She says, believably, no. The question isn’t about happiness, as we would have it. It’s between a lost happiness and the possibility of new happiness.

But the question that continues to steal the possibility of that new happiness is why her first husband would have committed suicide, if he did. There seems to be no reason for it, no explanation. As with The Third Murder, we are never given an explanation. We are, with Yumiko, left without an answer, as we would be in the same circumstance.

In answer to Yumiko’s question, Ikuo tells her a story about her dad encountering a maboroshi, which is some kind of apparition, illusion, vision, or phantom. People are drawn to it inexplicably, as Ikuo’s father was when he was fishing. We are all drawn toward something like that, he says, and so perhaps with Tomio. But finally, it’s not something that’s real. Her husband is dead, whether suicide or not, and no amount of questioning and wondering can change that fact. Will she continue to be drawn toward that maboroshi or will she walk toward what is in actually there in front of her?

This is the truth of living life in world that contains far more than its share of tragedy, heartache, and unhappiness: if the goal is always to be happy, by what standard will we judge it? There’s nothing wrong in Yumiko’s new life that she can fix, because there’s nothing that can bring back Tomio. And maybe there’s some alternate world in which life is different, like the reflections in the water, but this is not that world. The decision isn’t between happiness and unhappiness, but between living in the world as it is and pretending there’s some other world in which to live. That world is the maboroshi by which we are all tempted, but which will actually kill us.

I’ve never really been able to find a director on whom I could consistently count to make movies I wanted to watch. I’m ready to be disappointed in this or that film. So far Kore-eda has not disappointed me. I can’t quite put my finger on the reason his films draw me in, but it’s something like the effect of beginning a novel by an author you’ve never read. You don’t know quite where it’s going, but you give it a chance. All of a sudden, you’re in a space you didn’t expect, and you want to both read the book in a single sitting and never finish it. For whatever reason, Hirokazu Kore-eda does that for me.