Sunday, March 11, 2012


Considering what sort of memorial I could offer to the spirit of the Japanese people a year after the earthquake and tsunami, I thought I might devote a post to a film that explores the mysteries of life and death more beautifully than Hirokazu Koreeda's Maborosi (1995).

I devoted a post last year to an overview of Koreeda. I will only reiterate here that, when looking at his filmography, it isn't the least surprising that his first films were politically engaged documentaries like But - In the Time of Government Aid Cuts (1991), I Wanted to be a Japanese... (1992) (about a Korean man who passed himself off for Japanese for twenty years), and two documentaries profiling a man living with AIDS. Maboroshi no Hikari, an idiomatic expression akin to our "Will-o-the-Wisp", was Koreeda's first fiction film, and it is an astonishing debut.

The story (it can hardly be called a plot) is transparently simple: a young couple, Yumiko and Ikuo, live in Osaka with their baby son. On his way home from work, Ikuo is run over by a train. His death may have been accident or a suicide. Yumiko is left to bring up their son, and a few years later agrees to an arranged marriage with a man in Noto, a rural community on the west coast. She settles into a happy but very different life, despite troubling memories.

Near the film's close, after some of the most spectacularly brooding landscape imagery every captured on film, Yumiko cries out to her new husband, "I just don't understand. Why did he kill himself? Why was he walking along the tracks? It just goes around and around in my head. Why do you think he did it?"

"The sea has the power to beguile," he tells her. "Back when dad was still fishing he once saw a "maborosi", a strange light, far out to sea. Something in it was beckoning to him, he said. It happens to all of us."

So many of Koreeda's film are about making sense of things, the strange events of some people's lives, and their sometimes even stranger deaths. After Life (whose original title is Wonderful Life) explores a concept of death that is charmingly realistic and intellectually challenging: what if when we die we are given chance to choose from among our lifetime of memories the one in which we can spend eternity? In Distance, which has never been shown theatrically in the U.S., Koreeda explores the lives of some people who belonged to a religious cult that carried out a terror attack similar to the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.

At the time of Maborosi's release, Koreeda said, "for my generation there is a feeling of a lack of certainty about anything - a universal undefined feeling of loss. . . . I really don't think it's bad for people to be attracted to the idea of death or loss, or to portray it, or to approach it or to measure one's distance from it. I feel that by doing so you rethink the ideas of life and living. You can reaffirm life every time you think about death and loss."

We never find out how or why Ikuo died, if it was an accident or if it was suicide. People keep secrets from us even unto death. Last week I watched an amateur video shot by a survivor of one of the tornadoes in the American Midwest. In the video, in which a funnel cloud is forming very close by, a woman's voice is praying frantically to "Jesus" that the tornado should not come down. So the tornado came down elsewhere and killed someone else. Faith in a god that capricious is baffling to me.

The most popular TV shows in America are CSI and NCIS - crime scene investigations night after night. There is something therapeutic, I suppose, in having life's mysteries solved and explicated so neatly and expeditiously. But it also conditions people to expect that mysteries can always be solved, that every question has a ready-made answer.

With so many people dead and still missing one year after the catastrophes in Japan, Koreeda told a reporter recently that if he were granted one wish it would be that his country should "recover everything" that was lost a year ago.

"In our daily lives there are important things that we sometimes forget, that we miss and do not realise their importance. In March the earthquake and tsunami in Japan caused many people to lose these things. My wish is that we could recover everything we lost in March."

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