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Maborosi, After Life, Distance, Air Doll

Maboroshi no hikari, 1995
[Maborosi/Phantom Light]

EsumiAn elderly woman (Kikuko Hashimoto) abstractedly walks down the sidewalk of a high traffic bridge, as she often does, determined to return to her childhood village. Her granddaughter chases after her, imploring her to come home, but she continues to walk on. When evening comes, the grandmother's idiosyncratic ritual becomes cause for concern when she does not return, and cannot be found. The girl, now a married woman named Yumiko (Makiko Esumi), continues to have recurring dreams of their last encounter, and is plagued with the guilt of her inability to stop her grandmother from leaving. She wakes her husband, Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano), who soporifically tells her to go back to sleep. Perhaps, her grandmother will return in her dream.

Yumiko and Ikuo lead a happy, content life with their newborn son in a modest apartment in a working class section of Osaka. When his bicycle is stolen, the carefree Ikuo, in turn, steals a bicycle from a rich neighborhood, and the young couple spend the evening repainting it. Yumiko notices Ikuo's seemingly melancholy, but he dismisses the sentiment by rationalizing that the sight of a colleague's top knot - a vestige from his sumo wrestling days - saddens him. One day, Ikuo returns home with the bicycle to protect it from the coming rain, and walks back to work. That evening, a policeman knocks on the door to inform Yumiko that a man walking on the tracks was killed by an oncoming train in an apparent suicide. It was Ikuo. For the second time in her young life, Yumiko is faced with a sudden, incomprehensible loss. For the sake of their son, Yumiko finds the courage to persevere, and after several years, accepts a marriage arrangement with a widower named Tamio (Takashi Naito) who lives in a small coastal town. Yet, despite the passage of time and distance from her hometown, one question continues to haunt her: Why was Ikuo walking on the tracks?

Maborosi is a visually serene, poignant, and honest examination of loss and grief. Using the recurring imagery of rectangular and framed compositions, static camera, and warm, natural lighting, Hirokazu Kore-eda pays reverent homage to the indelible, humanist cinema of Yasujiro Ozu. Similar to the character, Julie, in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue, Yumiko's impassive countenance is a facade for a well of unreconciled emotions. Kore-eda does not dwell on the moment of tragedy, but on the quiet observation of the process of healing: the children's run through the woods, the family eating watermelon on the back porch; Yumiko and Tamio sharing an intimate moment. How does one find closure when the answers remain elusive? For Yumiko, the answer lies in courage, compassion, and patience.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Wandafuru Raifu, 1998
[After Life]

After LifeEarly Monday morning, four overworked, dedicated counselors are given a motivational speech by their supervisor in preparation for the week's heavy caseload. A distant bell tolls, and one by one, people emerge from the fog into an empty station, declare their names to an unseen receptionist, and bide their time in the waiting room before being summoned. A gentle, mild-mannered woman, Tatara Kimiko, is the first to be called in to meet her counselors, Mochizuke (Arata) and Shiori (Erika Oda), who officially confirm that she has died. She nods with courteous acceptance. Mochizuke proceeds to explain to Kimiko that she has three days in order to select one memory from her lifetime. The single memory will be reenacted on film by the staff, and will serve as her only connection to her past - her physical existence - into the afterlife. Other people seem to know immediately what memory they want to capture for eternity - a trip to Disneyland or a sexual encounter - but find themselves eventually selecting a more meaningful, personal memory. Another chooses a fleeting moment of comfort and humanity after experiencing a terrible ordeal. A brash young man, Iseya, speaking to another counselor, interrupts the instructional explanation. "So everyone ends up here? You mean whether you were good or bad or whatever, all that stuff about going to hell if you're bad... Not true? Everyone's here?" He disagrees with the abandoning a lifetime of memories in favor of only one, and refuses to choose. At another session, an expressionless, pensive old man, Ichiro Watanabe, wants to find some evidence of his life, and Mochizuke arranges for archived videotapes of Watanabe's life - from his arranged marriage of convenience to his uneventful management career - to be sent for his review. A third case proves to be difficult: a sweet-natured elderly woman, Nishimura, whose memories have been inextricably locked within the mindset of a little girl. How does a person already resigned to her memories, choose a single one?

Hirokazu Kore-eda seamlessly synthesizes the creative visual imagery of feature film with the provocative honesty of the documentary to create the sublimely poignant and haunting After Life. Similar to Alain Resnais, Kore-eda examines the complex, symbiotic relationship between memory and altered perception. Objective memory, as shown through videotapes, provides a factual, dispassionate chronicle of actual events. Perspective memory, as related by the subjects to their receptive counselors, reflects a biased, emotional attachment to the actual event, and is often affected by retrospective significance. Interpretive memory, as recreated by the staff on film, is a fabrication of the actual event, and is limited by time, resources, and the accuracy of the information provided by the subject. Is one form of memory more important than another? Does precise memory define truth, or is ingrained memory an interactive process that leads to personal, and ultimately relevant, truth?

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Distance, 2001

A radio broadcast issues a public service announcement reminding listeners of the third anniversary memorial service for the victims of the Ark of Truth cult disaster, a biological terrorist attack that introduced a genetically engineered virus into the nation's water supply, leading to the deaths of 128 people and an additional 8,000 illnesses. A quiet and unassuming florist (Arata) selects a handful of flowers for a store arrangement, before leaving work to visit a frail, elderly man in a hospital. In another part of town, an energetic and personable student named Masaru (Yusuke Iseya) hands out product advertisements at a busy intersection before spending the evening with his girlfriend at a video arcade. During a telephone conversation, he arranges to spend the following day with a person named Atsushi who, he evasively explains, is an old friend, and deliberately excludes his girlfriend from the forthcoming reunion. Later, Masaru is observed spending idle time with the florist along the train tracks before hurrying to collect two passengers at the railway station: a married construction businessman named Minoru (Susumu Terajima) and a reserved schoolteacher named Kiyoka (Yui Natsukawa). The unlikely group of traveling companions then venture off-road to a remote clearing. They have arrived at a lake near the site of the cult compound in order to pray for the souls of their loved ones - members of the Ark of Truth who perpetrated the attack, then committed mass suicide. Returning to the clearing after the solemn observance, they discover that their vehicle has been stolen, along with a motorcycle that belonged to a surviving cult member, Sakata (Tadanobu Asano), who has returned for the first time since the attack in order to pay respect. With the approach of darkness, the stranded travelers reluctantly decide to spend the evening at the isolated cabin, and in the process, reflect on the inscrutability and emotional distance of their loved ones in the days leading to the fateful incident.

Hirokazu Kore-eda presents a contemplative and objective, yet compassionate portrait of loss, grief, and healing in
Distance. Interspersing memories and dissociated flashbacks with the present-day memorial at the lake, Kore-eda conveys the pattern of alienation and emotional isolation of the perpetrators from their families as they becoming increasingly consumed with the collective ideology of the cult: Sakata's lone visit at the pier before the arrival of the relatives; the foreshadowed image of a downcast Minoru at a restaurant; Masaru's brother's (Kanji Tsuda) unexpected farewell at the end of their father's death anniversary. Moreover, by capturing civilization's increasing reliance (and dependence) on technology, Kore-eda reflects on its isolating consequence: the out-of-range cellular telephones that figuratively disconnect the travelers from the rest of the world; the anonymous and impersonal propagation of the synthesized virus through the reservoirs; Kiyoki's husband, Tamaki's (Kenichi Endo) myopic diatribe on the environmental malaise of modern civilization. But in the end, despite the mourners' attempts to understand and reconcile with their beloved's unconscionable act, the answers remain incomprehensible, enigmatic, untenable, and ultimately, elusive.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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