Four 20-something girls take a road trip to northern Japan in an urgent quest for self-knowledge in Petal Dance, a film so delicate and respectful in its approach to the youthful feminine universe, it often brushes poetry. In other moments, however, the magic fails and the characters are left dangling onscreen staring at the ocean. Writer-director Hiroshi Ishikawa, whose last film was the 2005 award-winner Su-ki-da, runs the risk of tedium to compose this cinematic haiku out of natural sounds and imagery, half-finished phrases and sideways glances. While many audiences will perceive it as too arty, it has strong festival appeal for those willing to stay the course.
The film opens with classic New Wave close-ups of long-haired Jinko (Su-ki-da’s young lead Aoi Miyazaki) and her boyfriend alone on a cold, windy field, exchanging a few terse, nervous words that might mean they’re breaking up. Elsewhere another couple, Motoko (Sakura Ando, Our Homeland) and her ex-husband, come together after a long time because she wants to borrow his old car. She and Jinko have decided to visit their college chum Miki (Kazue Fukiishi), who they haven’t seen for six years, since she tried to kill herself by jumping into the ocean.
Jinko and Motoko meet and phone each other about whether they’re doing the right thing. What will they say to Miki when they see her? Will she be pleased with their visit? And why are they going now, after all these years? The unvoiced subtext is that both girls have issues pending in their own lives that they need to cope with. Presumably these are their personal relationships to their confused young men.
Completing the quartet is the sweet, enigmatic Haraki (Japanese-Australian tv star Shiori Kutsuna), a loner who suddenly finds herself jobless and aimless. Like the others, she seems to have no family ties, or even a man in her life. She talks about her difficulty relating to others as a listening problem, and berates herself for it. “Only connect” could be borrowed as the slogan of all these characters.
Haraki is standing in a train station close to the yellow line when a stranger suddenly jerks her back from the tracks, believing she’s about to kill herself. It’s Jinko, obsessed with Miki’s suicide attempt. Probably Haraki had no such intentions, but Ishikawa’s demure screenplay and Shiori’s melancholy smile leave room for doubt.
Impulsively, Haraki offers to drive the car for her new acquaintances and the three girls head into the snowy north. The journey is uneventful; but they find meaning in natural metaphors like a tree bent by the wind but not broken that reminds them of Miki. When they arrive that evening, they find her living somewhat surreally in the Japanese equivalent of a Swiss clinic, pensively drawing circles on vaporized windows.
The second half of the film slows down and sputters out narratively, leaving it to Yoichi Nagano’s sensitive camerawork to describe the quartet’s hesitant rebirth on a snowy beach tortured by winter waves, shot in shades of light silver gray. All the young actresses are pros with something to say about their characters: Miyazaki’s childlike Jinko laughs and plays, while Ando’s more cynical Motoko has a lived-in disgruntled look. Fukiishi has very little screen time to develop Miki beyond a beautiful, mad Ophelia longing for wholeness.
Though natural sounds are prioritized throughout, the film ends on an atmospheric musical note with Norwegian singer Egil Olsen’s haunting “Predawn.”
Venue: Hong Kong Filmart and Film Festival, Mar. 18, 2013.
Production company: Geek Sight
Cast: Aoi Miyazaki, Shiori Kutsuna, Sakura Ando, Kazue Fukiishi
Director: Hiroshi Ishikawa
Screenwriter: Hiroshi Ishikawa
Producer: Tamotsu Kosano,Yuji Sadai, Shogo Ishizuka, Ryuta Hashimoto
Director of photography: Yoichi Nagano
Production designer: Machi Tsuge
Editor: Hiroshi Ishikawa
Music: Yoko Kanno
Sales Agent: Bitters End