The full title, Maboroshi no hikari, means "illusion of light," and as one character explains late in the film, it is something that men sometimes see far out at sea — a beautiful light that lures them away from shore, perhaps never to be seen again. We know that such things happen, but why, or to what end, is not ours to guess.
Maborosi deals with this notion of inconceivable loss through the story of a young woman, Yumiko (Makiko Esumi, miles removed from her mannered "Cinematic Kabuki" performance in Pistol Opera), happily married to Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano). They have an infant son, Yuichi, and they live somewhere in Japan, simply but with great affection for each other. At one point Ikuo's bike is stolen, and his response is to steal it back and repaint it — after which the two of them go riding at night.
The director, Hirokazu Kore-eda, films these early, tender scenes with great distance and coldness. It's several scenes before we ever get to see their faces. Shots begin and end in total darkness. We do hear their 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.
One day Ikuo does not return home, and Yumiko discovers to her shock that she is now alone in the world. She has her son, and the neighborhood matchmaker is kind to her, but her life has ground to a halt — not only because of the tragedy itself, but because she cannot understand it. They were happy together; he was a good man — so why is he now gone? She doesn't weep or beat her breast, though; she just sits there, like someone slowly turning to stone.
Time passes. Eventually she meets and marries another man, Tamio (Takashi Naitoh), also a widow, and with a daughter from his previous marriage. They live in a remote fishing village, but the neighbors are accepting and cheerful — especially the tough-as-nails fisherwoman crone who lives a few doors down. Yuichi and the girl are happy with each other, and Tamio and Yumiko also seem to be happy. But every now and then she will simply stop in the middle of an everyday task and drift off into space, wondering: Why?
The film does not work by setting up some contrived solution to the problem of death. I half-expected Yumiko to find a hidden suicide note or something to that effect, but that's not what Maborosi is aiming for. This is a larger, more ambitious movie, and it works by simply standing back and allowing its characters as much breathing room as needed. There's barely any dialogue in the movie, but that's only because the actors (and the director) are able to suggest everything that needs to be said by showing us, not telling us.
The performances are appropriately dialed down to match the restrained look of the film. The only time Yumiko expresses an extreme of emotion, it's handled in a long shot — so far away and in such a murk that we only have the sound of her voice to tip us off that it is indeed her that is weeping so. But the effect is strangely intimate; because we are not distracted by anything, we can focus on her grief even more effectively than if we had been given a closeup.
Many people have compared Kore-eda's approach here to Yasujiro Ozu, the masterful Japanese director whose movies were models of stately calm and geometrically precise (but never sterile) cinematography. There's definitely a resemblance — I liked how Kore-eda includes a teapot sitting on top of a kerosene heater in a kind of running homage to a similarly-positioned bottle in Ozu's Drifting Weeds — but Kore-eda is putting the style into the service of his movie's needs, not simply aping it. Over time the distances in the film are more sad and rich than sterile and cold, and we begin to understand what Yumiko is feeling from the inside out.
The opening of the film, and moments through it, all strike the same note: How do we know that when someone we love and hold dear walks out the door, they will never return? The film has no answer, not even a leap of faith — and that is as it should be, because life is too large to trivialize with a pat answer to such a question. By the end of the film Yumiko does not have an answer, but she does have a perspective, a sense that one way or another things will and must continue. And that, too, is as it should be.
Kore-eda has quickly become one of Japan's most interesting directors. Since Maborosi, he has also directed After Life, an amusing and fanciful take on what happens after we give up the ghost, and Distance, an oblique but oddly effective way to gain another perspective-of-a-kind on one of Japan's most troubling bits of recent history, the Aum Shinrikyo subway gas attack. The film is not about the attack, but about its effect on people after the fact, and, like Maborosi, how people come to terms with something far too big for them.