This first fiction feature by Kore-eda Hirokazu is currently on re-release in selected UK cinemas following the great success of Shoplifters in 2018. The BFI ran a full retrospective of Kore-eda’s fiction output during April and May and there is a Blu-ray release planned for this title in a package with After Life, Nobody Knows and Still Walking due for release in July. HOME in Manchester is offering a mini-season of the first five Kore-eda films in the second half of June entitled ‘Of Flesh and Blood’. Maboroshi is playing at HOME on the 16th June.
Maboroshi no hikari, to give the full Japanese title, is an adaptation by Ogita Yoshihisa of a novella/short story by Miyamoto Teru. For his later films, Kore-eda has often chosen news events or has been stimulated by his own life experience. In this case, though the source for the narrative seems ‘external’, it also seems in line with Kore-eda’s interests. The title translates roughly as ‘phantom light’, ‘shimmering light’ or perhaps ‘a trick of the light’ and it refers directly to the details of an anecdote told at the end of the film. We first meet Yumiko as a girl living with her parents and younger brother in a dismal building in Osaka. She is helpless to prevent her aged grandmother leaving the house and never being seen again – she has told the young girl that she is returning to Shikoku to die. Yumiko sleeps badly after this and her childhood friend Ikuo seems to offer her only distraction. When we meet Yumiko a few years later she is played by Esumi Makiko as a tall and graceful mother of a little boy (Yuichi), still living in Osaka and now married to Ikuo (now played by Asano Tadanobu before he became very well-known in Japanese films). Yumiko still dreams about her grandmother’s disappearance. The couple seem happy together but one night Ikuo is killed while walking home along the railway track. Yumiko is devastated and puzzled. Why do people think it was suicide? (This isn’t a spoiler – the only information on the BBFC certificate shown before the titles simply states ‘suicide theme’.) Eventually, a good neighbour acts as a traditional matchmaker and introduces Yumiko to a widower with a daughter a few years older than Yuichi and mother and son travel across Central Japan to a small fishing village on the West Coast near Wajima. How will this second marriage work out? Will Yumiko emerge from her long period of mourning?
I will avoid too many spoilers from this point on. I want to comment mainly on the visual style of this first fiction feature (after the director’s work in television documentary) and also on the ways in which it presents ideas to which Kore-eda may return in later films. Unsurprisingly perhaps, there is more of a sense of the documentarist’s ‘observing’ eye in Maborosi, both in the street scenes, but also in the use of long shots and long takes. Towards the end of the film the long shots are expanded even further so we get to see a small ‘action’ within a long shot of the entire coastal village (from the heights above the settlement). Against these expansive shots, Kore-eda offers us interiors which all seem underlit and in which events often seem to play out very slowly indeed.
Since he began making fiction films, Kore-eda has been subject to various suggestions by Western critics and scholars about his influences and particularly the possibility that he has been strongly influenced by Ozu Yasujiro. Kore-eda has responded by agreeing that he has studied Ozu but that he still isn’t sure what he makes of the films. Naruse Mikio has been the one of the 1950s ‘masters’ who Kore-eda himself has acknowledged. Kore-eda has also stated quite clearly that Hou Hsiao-hsien (an Ozu fan) and Ken Loach (as a filmmaker concerned with ‘social issues’) are two of his main influences. The social issue in Maborisi is the long-term impact of bereavement on the widow and her son. Yumiko cannot get past her memories of her grandmother and of Ikuo and this prevents her from helping Yuichi in his attempts to feel part of his new family. Fortunately he now has a step-sister a few years older and his new father seems a patient and loving man. He also has a new grandfather. The next door neighbour, a fisherman, is helpful too and in the village there is Tomeno, an older woman who still goes out to sea to catch crabs for her market stall. She is an important figure for Yumiko’s new family, but does she remind Yumiko of her grandmother? She is perhaps the first of the older women who populate some of Kore-eda’s later films.
In one sense the narrative seems to split in two with the interior world of Yumiko and the external world of the village in which Yuichi and his step-sister can play quite safely, protected by the other villagers. While Yumiko’s narrative is very dark, Yuichi’s looks forward to similar scenes by the sea in Our Little Sister (2015). Esumi Makiko as Yumiko made her first film appearance in Maborosi at 28. She had been a volleyball player and a model. She appears mainly in sombre clothes throughout the film with long, narrow skirts and long tops. She doesn’t say a great deal and mostly she wears her hair down. In the final sequence, Kore-eda seems to be playing with ideas about the traditional Japanese female ghost figure (though the figure of Sadako in Ringu was still a few years away from making such figures very familiar in the West). Watch out for Yumiko sitting in a bus shelter – you’ll need to look carefully!
I can’t get too far away from the Ozu comments, especially since there are some shots in the film that remind us of Ozu’s ‘pillow shots’, especially those which are ’empty’ of human figures. But there are also static shots that tend to have a more symbolic or metaphorical function. For instance, there is a repeated static long shot of a figure walking away from the camera, either through a tunnel or under a bridge or arch. The figures are mainly silhouettes, moving from the dark into the light. There is an obvious connotation of a ‘portal’ to another world, but the third such shot shows Yuichi and his step-sister enjoying exploring the world of his new home village. Nakabori Masao is a cinematographer who seems to have worked over several years with the same director, Jissôji Akio, on a series of genre pictures before Maborosi. I haven’t seen any of these films but they don’t immediately suggest why he might be chosen by Kore-eda. I’m assuming that the director expressed his requirements very carefully and the results are astonishing. I’ve already hinted at the tone of the horror/ghost story film and there is a general sense of mystery surrounding the dominant feeling of loss, but also the strengths of family. Chen Ming-chang, who I assume to be a Taiwanese film music composer, is responsible for the film’s haunting score (apologies for the inevitable pun). He had previously composed scores for two Hou Hsiao-hsien films. Again, the score is unusual and seems to have generated a great deal of interest as a soundtrack album.
I think I’ve spent more time going over scenes from this film than any other I’ve seen for some time. I have the original UK DVD which in the early 2000s, before my immersion in Kore-eda’s later work, I found difficult to watch. Having now seen it on a cinema screen and researched the film’s background and reception I’ve come to the conclusion that this was an astounding fiction feature début. It’s now plain that Kore-eda’s interest in ‘family’ stories is introduced here, but there is also a focus on memory which will feature in the next two films (a documentary, Without Memory (1996) and After Life in 1999). I now realise too that the documentary August Without Him (1994) about the first Japanese man to announce he had AIDS was an important experience for Kore-eda, pushing him towards fiction as a form to allow him to explore his interest in humanist narratives. Kore-eda’s narrative control in Maborosi and the way in which sound and image are used is extraordinary. Although he didn’t write the script, Kore-eda appears to have embraced it as his own. His original aim was to become a writer before he switched his interest to visual arts. After this film he became both the scriptwriter and the editor of all of his films.
Maborosi is essential viewing as Kore-eda’s first fiction feature and as a standalone film narrative that demonstrates the director’s commitment to his work. In one of the most perceptive contemporary reviews, Mark Sinker in Sight and Sound, July 1996 suggests that Kore-eda presents a film with all the trappings of a severe art film – the long static shots, the use of only natural light, the very careful framings etc. – but sometimes shifts to the delights of the details of daily life for the family and the occasional glimpses of the comic possibilities of the presentation. In the later films, it seems to me that the visual signifiers become less pronounced and our empathy with the characters begins to develop more through the writing and the performances. With each film, it seems that Kore-eda hones his skills as one of modern cinema’s finest humanist directors.
The BFI’s new trailer for the film:
I’ve only seen one of Xavier Dolan’s films, Heartbeats, and didn’t like his direction. This Grand Prize of the Jury prize winner at Cannes is much more surefooted as he places the camera close-up to individuals who are under-going a meltdown during a family reunion. Dolan’s screenplay is based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce and the tight framing is an elegant way of avoiding staginess; he also favours an expressive shallow depth of field by using rack focus to change the subject of the shot. There’s no doubt, however, that the key to the success of the film is its stellar cast: Nathalie Baye, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard and Léa Seydoux. Gaspard Ulliel, too, is excellent as the protagonist who returns to his estranged family to announce his imminent death.
He hasn’t seen them for 12 years and has not been good at keeping in contact. It’s soon clear, Cassel’s character always seems to have his back to the action, that the pent up frustration of Louis’ absence is going to explode. The film is stagy in the sense that each of the characters get to have a private conversation with Louis that expose the history, of lack of, between them. However, as noted, such is the brilliance of the performances the scenes remain gripping. If Cassel’s rivets up his incendiary tendencies, Cotillard dials hers down to play Catherine as mousy but with a hint of steel. Baye breezes through as the mother who is determined to make the best of the occasion while not blind to Louis’ faults. Seydoux smoulders with resentment toward her brother (who’s a successful writer) that she barely knows.
If the ending, involving some fantastic symbolism with a suddenly animated cuckoo clock bird, is a little laboured, it otherwise doesn’t let down the preceding narrative. As the ironic title suggests, dying isn’t at all unusual so we shouldn’t forget living. Bradshaw suggests the film’s about the dysfunctionality of family life but I wonder if it’s more about how important family life is and what may happen if you neglect it.
In a recent post on The Day the Earth Caught Fire I suggested that British new wave films had a tendency to be misoygnist (which garnered much disagreement in the comments) and two films I’ve seen recently seem to confirm this. I wasn’t taken enough by Look Back in Anger (1959) to blog about it but A Kind of Loving is a brilliant film and stands up well 57 years after its release. Its tale of sexual frustration and repressive mores is both of its time and universal (or at least what passes for universal in western culture). Alan Bates’ Vic’s fumbling seduction of newcomer June Ritchie’s Ingrid is a story no doubt enacted many times, even today when the shadow of the 60s’ sexual liberation has at least, for most, meant a ‘shotgun wedding’ is unnecessary.
This passage from Chris Beckett’s recent novel Beneath the World, A Sea is apposite:
. . . there were a million songs to tell you that, a million movies – but she should know by now, without needing duendes [spirits in Ibero and Latin American culture] to remind her, that those exciting and ridiculously hopeful feelings were basically a trick played by biology, which saw an opportunity for reproduction looming, and duly turned on a tap to flood your bloodstream with a drug not unrelated to heroin to dampen down your critical faculties and accomplish the formation of a couple. As soon as you reached that longed-for peak, the descent began almost at once, not necessarily to some sort of hell, obviously, but back to a place where, as before, you were essentially alone again, except that, if you’d not been careful, you were now shackled to another person – not a ‘soulmate’, and not your missing ‘other half’, but simply another person – whose needs you were now required to take into account every single day unless and until you could summon up the courage and energy to disentangle yourself.
For Vic the entanglement of marriage includes Thora Hird’s battleaxe mother-in-law and a wife who is compliant to her mother rather than husband. James Bolam is already channeling his ‘likely lad’ of two years hence as Jeff, whose cynicism allows him to characterise women as ‘praying mantises’ who eat their sexual partner; as he says: “And you know what they eat last don’t you?” Of course such misogyny was mainstream at the time even if it has just about been shoved to the margins now (though by no means absent from right wing discourse; a recent headline in The Times stated, ‘Tory leadership contenders show off their wives and policy’). There can be a fine line between a film representing something, in this case misogyny, and condoning it. However, in one scene Vic is standing under the marquee of a cinema showing Victim that suggests the film is on Jeff’s side.
As John Hill noted, in Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956-1963, women in the new wave were often associated with the new consumer culture which was represented negatively when compared to ‘authentic’ working class culture. In A Kind of Loving Vic misses his Dad’s brass band concert after he’s cajoled to watch a crass TV game show.
The script, by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, is great as is the source novel by Stan Barstow published two years earlier. It is also not entirely on Vic’s side. After he decides to leave Ingrid he seeks validation from both his sister and mum and it’s forthcoming from neither. When the couple have sex Ingrid asks about ‘precautions’ and Vic replies he ‘wasn’t able to’ when we know he bottled buying condoms from a woman pharmacist.
As is often the case with the British New Wave, the location shooting is as crucial as performance and narrative. Denys Coop’s cinematography is superb, evoking the grimness of ‘up north’ and offering some fabulous chiaroscuro shots of back alleys. John Schlesinger directs what was his first feature brilliantly and he went on to make two other new wave classics, Billy Liar (1963) and Darling (1965). The cast are also exemplary: it’s a British classic.
It was a strange day on Wednesday this week. We watched the last episode of The Bay on ITV only a few hours after returning from a day out in Morecambe where the ITV series was set and the final episode ended on the promenade and Stone Jetty where we had lunch. The crime serial (6×52 mins episodes) proved to be a winner for me overall, although I felt it lost its way a little around episode 3 and there were still a few loose ends flapping about at the end.
When the serial opened on UK screens it received some positive critical reviews for the first episode but then something of a backlash on social media. A common complaint was that it was just another inferior version of Broadchurch, one of the biggest crime fiction hits of recent years. It’s not difficult to see why this response might be forthcoming. Both serials feature missing children in a seaside setting with an emotionally involved police investigator. But there are major differences too. Broadchurch featured three major stars of British film and TV (Jodie Whittaker, Olivia Colman and David Tennant) as well as other well-known supporting players and in the second serial, several more notable figures. It was set in a fictitious town on a relatively unknown but beautiful part of the South Coast with London seemingly a long way away. If The Bay was more interesting for me, it was probably because of its setting.
The Bay refers to Morecambe Bay, a large geographical feature and one of the largest natural bays in Europe. The seaside resort of Morecambe is the largest settlement on the bay. As a resort, Morecambe reached its peak in the first half of the 20th century. It attracted large numbers of holidaymakers who used the direct rail route from Leeds and Bradford in West Yorkshire (and which we used on our trip – in far less comfort than travellers sixty years ago!). In its decline Morecambe has suffered like many other seaside resorts in Northern England and one of the social problems associated with that decline is an important element in this crime fiction drama.
The serial begins with the disappearance of 15 year-old twins Holly and Dylan. The officer who is assigned to Family Liaison duty is DS Lisa Armstrong who is not best pleased to be taken off a drugs investigation and asked to mentor DC ‘Med’ Kharim. She has a double burden to bear. In Episode 1 she does something that will compromise her position later on in the investigation and she is also a single parent for her own teenagers Abbie and Rob who go to the same school as Holly and Dylan. I’m not going to describe all the plot elements because the serial will be available on the ITV Hub and has been sold to several other TV broadcasters around the world.But I would like to comment on the production more generally.
Unlike Broadchurch, The Bay doesn’t have any major stars in the cast. That doesn’t mean that the cast is in any way inexperienced, but simply that the lead players are not so well-known that an entire episode is spent wondering what will happen to them based on their status. I don’t watch a lot of TV so perhaps some of the cast are more familiar to some viewers but I don’t think there are the same expectations of major acting tussles like Colman vs. Tennant etc. The star of The Bay is Morven Christie as Lisa Armstrong, who does indeed have a long list of TV credits and some interesting film roles. I must have seen her in Lilting (UK 2013). In The Bay she is excellent, managing, as a Scot, to produce an acceptable North of England accent. The cast overall are very good, drawn from across the North and as far afield as the North of Ireland (linked by ferry to Morecambe/Heysham). The Bay was written by Daragh Carville, the writer and playwright from Armagh who has written radio plays and films and the six episodes were directed by Lee Haven Jones and Robert Quinn, both of whom have experience of other UK crime fiction series.
One of the most important questions for me is how well do the creators of this serial make use of the locations offered by Morecambe and its environs? Morecambe’s claim to fame in film and television rests on three or four high profile narratives and associated stars. In 1960 it was the setting for Tony Richardson’s film The Entertainer with Laurence Olivier and in 1975 Stephen Frears’ TV film written by Alan Bennett, Sunset Across the Bay. Bennett, the Leeds boy knew Morecambe from his childhood. Thora Hird, often Alan Bennett’s go to actor is one of Morecambe’s best known celebrity figures alongside Eric Bartholomew, a.k.a Eric Morecambe, now a statue on the Promenade and immortalised in a biopic TV film by another Morecambe fan, Victoria Wood. Finally Morecambe Bay became the site of the tragedy of the Chinese cockle-pickers in 2004 represented in Nick Broomfield’s film Ghosts (UK 2006) and Isaac Julien’s installation Ten Thousand Waves (UK-China 2010). The cockle-pickers died just north of Morecambe in the bay close to Hest Bank.
Thanks to my local contact, I’m fairly sure that all the scenes in the serial were shot in the Morecambe area except for one in the closed outdoor swimming pool across the bay in Grange-over-Sands and another in a marina or fishing dock (my guess is Whitehaven or Glasson?). My impression is that the production tends to focus on the seafront and the few streets behind the promenade. There isn’t as much made of the beach and the bay as I thought might be the case and nothing of the hinterland of suburban housing which stretches inland and eventually merges with Lancaster.
The serial narrative is very complex. In terms of narrative structure it presents two families, both, in different ways, with mothers struggling through the teenage years of their children, both aided (or not) by their own mothers. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll say simply that the eventual family melodrama that becomes the dominant mode of the serial is melded with a crime fiction narrative mainly by the presence of drug dealing in the town and the access to Morecambe by sea is important. Morecambe as far as I am aware doesn’t have a fishing industry or a dock as such although it is a popular spot for amateur sea anglers. The only commercial fishery is across the bay at Flookburgh so for The Bay, a Morecambe-based fishing boat in the Irish Sea is an invention. The story does make sense though as an example of the ‘County Lines’ drugs operations whereby Manchester drugs gangs can bring drugs into a town like Morecambe and find/coerce locals into dealing.
As I’ve indicated there are some loose ends in the narrative and that might mean a sequel is a possibility. (It could also mean that I couldn’t make sense of the narrative in a single viewing or that there are mistakes in the script.) I think I would be up for another go. One last comment might be about the casting. The police force in this film seems diverse to a greater extent than might be expected in North Lancashire. I’m all in favour of diversity of gender and race in both the police and in TV drama but I wonder if it is also an indicator of how both the police and the presence of ‘organised’ crime represent urban Manchester reaching out to the ‘periphery’ of the North Lancashire coast? Morecambe is arguably a candidate for ‘left behind’ status in the current Brexit mess that has paralysed UK political action.