Hirokazu Kore-eda’s debut film Maborosi (1995), meaning “phantasmic light”, is inspired by the folklore of ghost lights that appear to lead the incautious traveller from their path – in English, will o’ the wisps. Although Kore-eda would go on to win the Palme d’Or for Shoplifters (2018), Maborosi – an adaption of a novel of the same name by Teru Miyamoto – is his most beguiling and beautiful work, the simplicity of its narrative sustaining a deep and devastating beauty.

Yumiko, played by Makiko Esumi, is a young woman trying to come to terms with the sudden suicide of her husband Ikuo. She moves away with her young son and new husband Tamio in an attempt to escape her grief, but grief follows her. Yumiko’s pain is registered in wide landscape shots that see her minuscule and isolated, with deep blue lighting that flushes the film with a bleak sublimity. In one nighttime scene, Yumiko sits alone on a pier overlooking the sea, with the moon casting a soft, silvery light on the water that reflects onto her face. Kore-eda’s masterful cinematography elevates the scene’s obvious metaphor to reveal the depths of Yumiko’s withdrawal as well as its strange illumination.

Shortly after we have learned of her husband’s death, Yumiko spends the night at the temple where Ikuo’s body is being prepared for the funeral, sitting with her mother-in-law, who begins to tell a story about a local legend involving a man who lost his wife and child in a flood but eventually found peace in accepting their deaths. Yumiko listens attentively, as does the viewer, but her words seem to offer little comfort. Suddenly, the temple’s bell rings and the mother-in-law explains that it is a signal for the dead to return to the temple to visit with their loved ones. Yumiko is visibly shaken as she watches the ghostly figures of her husband and a young girl pass by outside the temple doors. Kore-eda begins to blur the lines between reality and the supernatural in this display of how both ritual and folklore can foreground and clarify grief, register it as something real, yet fail to take away its sting.

Throughout Maborosi, Kore-eda pays tribute to the master of Japanese cinema Yasujiro Ozu by utilising “pillow shots” or “pillow words” – a technique Ozu himself took from Japanese poetry – visual cutaways seemingly without narrative significance. Yet in this film, the status of narrative is destabilised as Yumiko encounters the vast unknowing spaces that exist outside (and inside) individual experience. Why has her husband died, and how can she continue? Kore-eda unfolds these unanswerable questions into a work that’s as flickering and alluring as the beings it takes its title from – a subtle light that illuminates how complex the darkness is.

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