Human emotions are complicated and it is hard to translate them into concrete cognitive actions that another person may understand and accept. Emotions can easily go awry or go unsaid, piling up to create the peaks and valleys of human interaction and this is a landscape that writer and director Hiroshi Ishikawa loves to explore. Over the course of three features, he has refined the way he tells tales of people trying to bridge emotional chasms between each other and their profoundest emotions. Witness the protagonists of Ishikawa’s sophomore film Su-ki-da. They play out a love story that lasts from their teens well into their adulthood, the slow ache of their love informing every scene in this beautifully shot film.
It starts out like a coming-of-age drama told from the perspective of a mischievous seventeen year-old schoolgirl named Yu (Aoi Miyazaki). She has a crush on her classmate, a boy named Yosuke (Eita). He used to be on the school baseball team but has taken up playing the guitar and has vague dreams of becoming a professional musician. Yu observes him closely, sketching him in class and, watching as he strums the same melody on his guitar on a riverbank, slowly improving his skills. She hovers near him, sitting closer and closer as each day passes. Few words pass between the two but she intends on telling him how she feels. Alas, Yosuke is more interested in her older sister who is grieving the loss of her boyfriend after an accident. Yu’s sister takes some solace from Yosuke’s company and sits with him as he plays the guitar. Seeing the positive effect, Yu sacrifices her feelings to keep her sister together with Yosuke but a tragedy will separate them. Before they part, Yu makes a request over the melody Yosuke keeps playing, “Someday, let me hear it when it’s finished.”
A seventeen year gap elapses before Yu (Hiromi Nagasawa) and Yosuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) meet again. The story switches to Yosuke’s perspective at this point. Little disappointments have met them both after moving to Tokyo. He lives by himself in a barely furnished apartment and now works in the music industry but can’t get his songs recorded while Yu works in an office and carries guilt over the way life has turned out. They are adults, emotionally calloused after being buffeted by life but finally getting a chance to connect again. That melody Yosuke wrote, he will let Yu listen to it. Perhaps they can tell each other of their emotions.
The title Su-ki-da is the Japanese phrase for “I love you,” but the English title is broken up into its phonetic parts. The characters in the film definitely love each other but find it difficult to say it. Perhaps the fragmented nature of the title is a reference to the way that the characters can’t just say something so profound out loud until they are ready. Perhaps it suggests the bumpy and long journey to that point, stretching from adolescence to adulthood.
Compared to Ishikawa’s debut feature Tokyo.Sora (2002), this is more accessible since it utilises familiar genre tropes from teen romances seen in many a coming-of-age drama and then becomes a quiet and pained romance. While it may adopt easily identifiable story set-ups and plot twists Ishikawa bends everything to his will by shooting the film in his unique style and uses cinematic techniques to translate the awkward emotions felt by the characters onto the screen.
The whole aesthetic of the film is minimalist and there is a fragile texture to the look. Sets are uncluttered and lack distractions and there is a small cast on screen, the focus primarily on Yu and Yosuke. There is Ishikawa’s favoured slow pace and silence dominates the soundtrack until it is punctured by terse dialogue spoken in an uncertain manner. The motions and dialogue of the actors are controlled that the character’s emotions are evident even when those emotions are so self-contained. This considered style of filmmaking risks alienating audiences who may favour big set pieces but Su-ki-da is an example of the power of cinema to zoom in on the finest of emotions. Over the course of the film everything builds up increment by increment and it works as evidenced by the final emotional release at the very ending when the words that make up the title are finally uttered and the credits role on a colourful minute of relief after so much tension when connections are finally made.
This final moment is worth going through the film for alone but the whole experience is absorbing. Ishikawa has a way of shooting scenes beautifully. Most of the shots are interesting to look at and Ishikawa draws on a huge sky again to provide a backdrop to the action, clouds scudding and billowing over the grass embankment that Yu sits on as she watches Yosuke play his guitar or, in more emotionally troubled times, a cluttered city skyline that chokes the character’s view. The actors are also fascinating to watch especially Miyazaki who is pitch-perfect as Yu, the girl with the gamine charm. Her mischievous smile and smouldering glances dart over to Yosuke and contain so much passion. She proves to be just as absorbing by herself and Ishikawa knows how to use her.
Ishikawa may be considered an acquired taste but it is one worth developing. Not a lot seems to happen in his films on the surface and when it does some may wonder if films full of small acts are worth wading through since attention to detail and acceptance of his slow and minimalist style of filmmaking is demanded. It is worth it to see how romance can be portrayed in such a sensitive and subtle way which makes this unique. The worth is found at the end of the film when all if the details have been collected. Su-ki-da is a great example of that.