“Maboroshi no Hikari” translates literally as “Light of Illusion” and I am tempted to read this as a reference to my favourite film by Eric Rohmer, Le Rayon Vert (i.e., “The Green Ray”). It is however fairly unlikely, seeing as the two film do not have all that much in common – although it has to be said that both figure a young female protagonist who is somehow out of synch with her surroundings.
But while Rohmer’s Delphine chooses to distance herself from her environment and never stops to let everyone know how different she is, Koreeda’s Yumiko (played by fashion model Makiko Esumi in her first acting role of which she does a superb job) falls out of her world without intending to and in response becomes increasingly withdrawn into herself.
The first time we see Yumiko is as a young girl when she fails to keep her grandmother from wandering off on her own. Then we see her spend time with her husband – who finally also wanders off, in a way, by walking in front of a train. It is never explained whether this is a suicide or some kind of weird accident, and indeed Yumiko’s failure to comprehend why her husband died continues to haunt her for the main part of the film when she and her small son move to a small fishing village where she enters into a second, arranged marriage with a widower who has a small daughter.
The plot of Maboroshi no Hikari is – like in I Wish and Our Little Sister – minimal and emphatically not at all what the film is about. There is not even all that much dialogue; during most of the film’s 110 minutes we follow either Yumiko or the children (and some of the most beautiful scenes consists of them at play) doing nothing special. And yet, like the later films, I was not bored for a minute, but instead found myself watching in utter fascination. Maboroshi no Hikari was director Hirokazu Koreeda’s first fiction film and you can tell that his budget was way lower than in the later works. It is also a much sadder film, but does end on a hopeful note and is just as moving and beautiful.
There is a second, more specific meaning to “Maboroshi no Hikari” but as this is only told us towards the end of the film, I will not spoil it here. In addition, the uncertainty as to what exactly the title refers to keeps the viewer guessing and developing their own theories, which is something I think the film actively invites. And it invites viewer to watch closely, which is not as much of a given with films as one might expect – how many films rely on words for exposition, for plot advancement or character development rather than on images. This may not necessarily be a bad thing, but it does run the danger of turning what is supposedly a visual medium into a literary one with illustrations which do not really contribute anything essential. Not so Maboroshi no Hikari, a film that only opens up to viewers if they actually look at what is happening on the screen.
I do not know the first thing about the technical side of film making, but while watching I had the strong impression that Maboroshi no Hikari does not use any added lighting at all, but relies entirely on what was available on location. During the first ten minutes of the film most of the screen is shrouded in darkness, in sharp contrast to a single bright lighting around which the characters often huddle as if for warmth. Later on, the scene gradually brightens, but the light remains subdued throughout the film, culminating in a long scene at the end shot during what looks like an impending thunderstorm, with vast cloud massives looming over the characters’ heads.
It is almost as if the “light of illusion” was the illumination of film making, as if Koreeda abstained from using added lighting in order to avoid interfering into the unfolding of the scenes. There seems to be a concern that even observing a scene may falsify it, and in this context it is no surprise that Hirokazu Koreeda started out as a director of documentaries. Another instance of this is that there are barely any close-ups in Maboroshi no Hikari, almost everything – even the climactic confronation between Yumiko and her second husband – is filmed from a middle distance or even from far away. This has the effect of obscuring the characters’ facial expressions – the viewer literally has to squint trying to make them out, and can never be certain whether the emotions read into the far-away faces this way are really there or just imagined.
Maboroshi no Hikari is a film that makes its viewers work to comprehend it but in the best possible way – it treats its characters as humans, leaves them their mystery and it is left to viewers to puzzle things out. This is not wilfull obscurity however; what the film does is to respect the dignity of its characters, inviting us, the viewers, to share their life for a time but without intruding upon it. And it does so with gorgeous images, making this one of the most beautiful and moving films I have watched in recent years. And with every film by Hirokazu Koreeda which I am watching I am becoming more convinced that he is one of the great directors of our time.