Chris Marker met twentysomething Koumiko Muraoka by chance at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Marker’s voiceover tells us (Marker never appears in Le mystère Koumiko), “She is not an example of anything.” She is irreducibly herself, hence mysterious. “Japan is all around her”—Japan, which can be categorized, its people statistically analyzed, but to little avail, for Koumiko exemplifies the mystery of everything, everyone, everywhere.
Hiding behind his pseudonym, one mystery contemplates another. The gaze he casts upon Koumiko’s face recalls Alain Resnais’s upon the woman’s face in Hiroshima, mon amour (1959). Koumiko is mysterious even to herself. Born in Manchuria, she was educated in a Franco-Japanese school. “I must be Japanese now,” she says, but she speaks in halting French and finds that Japanese men speak too quickly for comprehension. She confesses to being “not completely Japanese,” “all mixed up”; but somehow Marker suggests that each of us, if we aren’t complacent, has a similarly confused identity.
Everything belongs to a complex web of associations that multiplies and deepens the meaning of every kaleidoscopic bit of reality. A boxing match sandwiched into a series of shots of buildings at night, for example, becomes mysterious, unfathomable. Everything means more than it appears to.
Recounting how she stepped on a rabbit, accidentally killing it, Koumiko isn’t exactly guilty, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, but haunted nevertheless. The past, she says, is a “cold and cruel,” unforgiving, eternally “silent” mirror.
We see neither Marker nor Koumiko as (supposedly) they drive forward in the rain. Marker asks, “What do you think of—?” and a series of images rather than words completes the question. Is it war? Violence? Progress? “It is a wave over the sea,” she answers, adding, “The wave advances bit by bit and finally reaches me.”
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