Hiroshi Ishikawa has made three films in eleven years. From his debut feature Tokyo.sora (2002) through Su-ki-da (2006) to his most recent film Petal Dance, he has favoured exploring the concept of loneliness and all of the emotions and actions surrounding it. Ishikawa’s stories are told in a minimalist style that has become more polished, as can be seen in his third feature.
The story involves Haraki (Shiori Kutsuna), a young woman who has just lost her job at a clothes store and, possibly, her friend Kyoko (Hanae Kan), who has disappeared. Haraki has not heard from Kyoko after a conversation between the two, which hinted at Kyoko having dark feelings, the sort that can lead to suicide. Haraki heads to a library to borrow books about suicide and it is while searching through the shelves that she meets a librarian named Jinko (Aoi Miyazaki) who is in a similar position.
Jinko has heard that a friend from university named Miki (Kazue Fukiishi) leapt into the sea somewhere in the cold north of Japan. The rumour ends with Miki getting out safely but is that all there is to it? Jinko calls their mutual friend Motoko (Sakura Ando) with the intention of heading north to find out the truth and understand what drove Miki to jump. A problem emerges. Neither Jinko nor Miki can drive and so they call upon Haraki to take them to the hospital where Miki is staying.
This set-up is slight but the narrative slowly gathers form as the three young women venture out just after the thirty-minute mark with the middle section turning into a road trip under cold grey skies. While the trio travel through the snowy mountains of the north they reveal personal memories to give context to their relationships and fill out the present tense narrative. Little acts and seemingly meaningless conversations are all told through a combination of naturalistic acting and improvised dialogue that shows the growing emotional bonds between the characters. These connections come to life through great chemistry between the lead actors who play off each other well. Ando brings an ebullient physicality to her performance while Katsuna plays her role in a distant manner, staring off into the sky at birds and gliders and whispering phrases, her character lost in memories of her friend Kyoko. Somewhere in the middle is Miyazaki, who normally plays sprightly characters. Here, she is instead thoughtful and grounded, but still a ray of sunshine. Once the film enters its final sequence, these three personalities are met with Miki’s heavy emotional presence.
This section adds some much-needed weight to the proceedings, lest it all feel too ephemeral. The initial look of shock on Miki’s face gives way to a sense of discomfort and coldness – the weakness displayed by Miki and the gradual breaking of the ice in this section contrasts with the earlier scenes of friendly bonding. Fukiishi plays Miki as a waif what with her awkward speech, uncertain actions and cold reactions. As the characters probe why Miki leapt into the sea, she resists giving concrete answers but the presence of her friends slowly draws her into their group and she begins to relax. The camera remains behind the friends during the reunion and its gaze lingers on the four to show the subtle shifting of emotions. Ishikawa’s steady and quiet direction combined with the strong acting means that the relationships feel appropriately handled. Although the reasons for Miki’s action remain absent, the audience can infer a lot from the proceedings.
Isolation and loneliness eat away at people. The first hour of the film is spent in a world permeated by silence and stillness under a slate grey sky. Kyoko talks about disappearing. Haraki reads a book called Suicide as an Option on a train where people sit alone, detached from each other. The car they use for the journey belongs to Motoko’s ex-husband, Naoto (Masanobu Ando), who looks miserable, but says he is happy to be in contact with his ex-wife. Meanwhile, Jinko is on the fence about going out with a suitor (Shunsuke Kazama). This is a level of subtlety that stays on the right side of obtuse. It all takes place with tremendous restraint in terms of script, performances, and aesthetics.
Petal Dance slowly takes its time getting the characters synchronised, at which point it becomes apparent that Haraki, seemingly unconnected to the three friends, serves as a lens into Miki’s puzzling act. Her story of a possibly suicidal friend feeds into the wider narrative of the friends and seeing their story play out helps Haraki. Kyoko’s belief that you can make a wish when you see something flying and it will come true is passed on to Jinko and Motoko and they also begin to copy Haraki’s actions and look to the sky. This is then passed onto Miki.
Towards the film’s end, as joy spreads and the grey sky is lit-up by the sun, there is an assumption that characters have been brought back from the brink by coming together and sharing their friendship. That human warmth counter-balances the cold atmosphere and lack of communication. Even if nothing solid is given in terms of dialogue, the mere sense of the four belonging in a relationship is enough to warm up the film and bring light into Miki’s life.
Petal Dance is a strikingly beautiful third feature by a director who has dedicated himself to exploring loneliness through a unique aesthetic, which favours subtlety, ambiguity, and naturalistic performances. Over the course of this gentle film, it becomes clear that Petal Dance is Ishikawa’s most refined work date.