petal-dance

Petal Dance (Petaru dansu)

Japan (2013) Dir. Hiroshi Ishikawa

Sometimes one watches a film and has a hard time trying to decipher what it is the director is trying to say, which often is made all the more difficult with an obscure title that has zero bearing on the story itself. Considering a recurring theme of this film is the wind, the title Petal Dance is very confusing indeed with nary a petal or any dancing to be found.

Even the story is skeletal at best – two long time friends Jinko (Aoi Miyazaki) and Motoko (Sakura Ando) hear a story about their friend Miki (Kazue Fukiishi) who supposedly walked into the sea but survived. Having just lost her job Haraki (Shiori Kutsuna), whom Jinko only just met, offers to drive Jinko and Motoko to visit Miki in hospital.

I’m not familiar with Hiroshi Ishikawa and a quick look at his résumé shows that he is not a very prolific filmmaker, with just three films made over the past fourteen years, Petal Dance being the most recent. Whether this film is indicative of his style I obviously cannot say but it would appear that Ishikawa is an acquired taste.

Even at 90 minutes this is a slow moving film and while quietly poetic, both action and dialogue is sparse. The atmosphere is one of deathly silence which sounds ill-fitting for a road trip film but this is one where the mood is one of introspection as each of the four ladies has some kind of private issue there are dealing with. Or perhaps they are running away from these issues instead?

Answers are not forthcoming here so whatever the journey is supposed to be or is meant to represent is something the audience presumably is left to divine for themselves. Concern for Miki is naturally top of the list but Jinko and Motoko haven’t seen Miki for six years, making their curiosity about why she would walk into the sea, suicide being a prime motive in their minds.

Suicide is also the key to bringing Jinko and Haraki together. After losing her job in a tiny boutique, Haraki borrows books on suicide from the library Jinko works at. The next day Jinko sees Haraki at the train station and, fearing she will jump in front of the train, Jinko jumps on Haraki, injuring her own wrist in the process.

This is probably the only occasion in the film where have a moment of easily identifiable continuity, using Jinko’s preoccupation with Miki’s possible suicide motivation to fear for a complete stranger. Luckily Haraki has a driver’s licence something Motoko doesn’t have, a slight handicap for someone who was going to drive the car, which she borrowed from her ex-husband Naoto (Masanobu Ando).    

With the couple seemingly on perfectly good terms, we can only assume that this is what is bothering Motoko but she remains the least vocal of the group, which is damning her with faint praise as conversation is at a premium here. As such, while she has the most spirited personality of the quartet (again, no mean feat), her character has little significance beyond making up the numbers.

At the very start of the film, before the title even appears, it is suggested that Jinko is breaking up with a boyfriend (Shunsuke Kazama), a subject neither expanded upon or broached again, once more leaving us to assume this is her source of heartache. Like Mokoto she is a thinly sketched, only occasionally showing flashes of humanity and emotion which the others don’t.

Haraki is more than the physical driver, she is also the energy force of the group. As the outsider, she is the one the others use to avoid talking about the Miki issue, distracting each other with philosophical and existential musings about snow, bent trees and the cold sea. She seems to be an instant fit with the group despite having no discerning connection with them, aside from random flashbacks of Haraki and another girl Kyoko (Hanae Kan), which possess an ethereal quality about them.

When they finally meet Miki she is another empty soul, who can’t even muster any enthusiasm towards her old friends who have made this pilgrimage out of regard for her wellbeing. She doesn’t appear to be rude just surprised but shockingly detached from reality without displaying signs of depression or anxiety.

As mentioned earlier the wind is a prevalent theme, mostly associated with a glider that passes by in the sky whenever on them looks upwards or muses about wishes being carried  by the wind. What it all means is anyone’s guess but it serves as a positive source of inspiration for the ladies and gives them something to project their future aspirations against.

Of course I might have misinterpreted that. Ishikawa clearly has no intention of making his ideas easily discernible to the audience nor does he show any signs of meeting us halfway by setting the scene before leaving us to design our own theories.  Not always a bad thing for some viewers, but this leaves us with a film which many will find to be a series of skits involving four women driving under a grey sky.

Ishikawa must have some respect in the Japanese film industry to have acting talent like Aoi Miyazaki and Sakura Ando at his disposal. Unfortunately neither are given much to do and barely feel directed at all, which is either a compliment to their naturalistic performances or a slight against Ishikawa. Kazue Fukiishi seems to be in a permanent trance as Miki leaving it to Shiori Kutsuna to bring some sparkle to the proceedings.

Petal Dance is as minimalist a film as one can get and this will work for some but not for everyone. It isn’t a bad film just one that lacks energy, form and a hook for those who like a clue as to what is supposed to be happening and a reason to care beyond an underutilised name cast.

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