The Oversimplification of Good and Bad

A few days ago, I found out one of my friends passed away. To be honest, she was more an acquaintance, as I’d only met her in person a handful of times. She wasn’t old, she wasn’t sick (as far as I knew), and she’d been active online as of two weeks ago. I don’t know if it was COVID or cancer or a car accident. Not that it matters. Dead is dead.

Right after hearing this piece of news, I found out that my friend’s wife was having her baby (their first child) later that afternoon. An evening post included a picture of the healthy baby boy. So, on one hand we have this bit of sad news, on the other, happy news. Life giveth and death taketh away.

But does this make death bad and life good? One could argue that neither are good or bad in themselves. Death prevents awful people from doing more harm, just as it prevents wonderful people from doing more good. Life for some is so terrible that not being born would be the better option, while for others not living would be worse.

When it comes to people being good or bad, we judge them limited by the short span of time we are alive to witness the effect of their actions, slightly longer if they’ve preceded us to the grave. To decide if someone was truly good or bad, we’d have to follow every thread of influence that their life has had on others and the sum total of that effect. And good people may do awful things, just as awful people may do good things.

The main problem with categorizing things as good or bad, however, is that it simplifies life in all its complexities, and simplifies us in all our multitudes. My friend was a lovely person, and yet to say she was a good person is to ignore the parts of her character that are neither good nor bad but just are, parts that her friends have been sharing on Facebook and which give a clearer idea of what was put in the universe with her life that is no longer there in her death. As for the baby, the years ahead will decide what kind of space he fills in the world, but there’s currently a very large vacancy.

Since You’ve Been Gone: Maborosi (Maboroshi no hikari, 1995, Japan, 110 mins)

Most things in life have no rational answers, which is why life is full of so many questions. Even events which we feel are rational only look that way from a distance; up close, living in the moment, they make very little sense. Irrationality has its own logic, however, and if we were to see life through its lens, more of it would be understood by us.

One of the great strengths of Maborosi is that it understands this truth.

The movie hinges around a husband’s probable suicide.  We never know for sure.  Our confusion is shared by Yumiko (Esumi Makiko), the young wife who is left behind.  In incredibly touching scenes at the beginning of this film, we see how much they love each other, and yet there is some distance between Yumiko and Ikuo (Asano Tadanobu).   In one scene, Yumiko looks at her husband through the glass door of the factory where he works.  In the section on the DVD labeled “Kore-eda Hirokazu,” the director explains that he wanted to show the love they feel for each other, while at the same time showing “the distance that separat[es] them.”  And yet nothing we see, and nothing Yumiko sees–even on the day that her husband dies–would make us believe that he wished to kill himself.

Instead of this issue being resolved later in the film, it grows in complexity.  At a bar where they used to frequent, the owner tells Yumiko that Ikuo came in on the day he died, acting as cheerful as ever.  This is years later, after Yumiko has remarried, via an arranged marriage, and moved to a remote fishing village with her son.  Her new husband seems to be a kind and caring man, but she is still haunted by memories of her former husband, and how he died.

Even more so than in Nobody Knows, Kore-eda Hirokazu, in his first feature-length film, shows his debt to Ozu Yasujiro.  Shots are held for a little longer than characters inhabit the space.  Pillow shots are placed here-and-there between scenes.  The camera rarely moves.

In addition, Kore-eda shows his familiarity with the movies of Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang, having directed a documentary about them in 1993 entitled When Cinema Reflects the Times–Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang (Maborosi was released in Japan in 1995).

Why do I mention this?  What Yang and Kore-eda (and, I imagine, Hou) have in common is an ability to stop time in their films so that the audience can reflect on what is happening in a scene, what it means to the characters, and what it means to themselves.  I found my mind wandering often in this film, but in directions that the film wanted me to go in.  Also, because we believe Ikuo is just as wonderful as Yumiko believes he is, and because we see how happy they are together, we feel the same sense of loss–throughout the movie–that Yumiko feels.  Her pain, her inability to understand why her husband was walking between the tracks that day, why he didn’t turn around when the whistle blew, why he left her with a three-month-old boy to raise alone, mirrors our own pain, our own inability to comprehend not just what we’ve seen on the screen, but what we’ve experienced in our own lives.  Life often doesn’t make any sense.  Or doesn’t seem to, for there is always an explanation for what has happened.  It’s just not often a rational one.

Note: All names in this review follow the traditional placement of the family name first, with the exception of Edward Yang.

The trailer for Maborosi:

Siskel and Ebert’s review of the film: