Skeleton Flowers (かそけきサンカヨウ, Rikiya Imaizumi, 2021)

The increasingly prolific Rikiya Imaizumi has become most closely associated with zeitgeisty youth romance accurately capturing the fears and anxieties of 20-somethings in contemporary Japan but brings his characteristically mellow touch to the classic coming-of-age tale in adapting Misumi Kubo’s short story Skeleton Flowers (かそけきサンカヨウ, Kasokeki Sankayo). In contrast to the gloominess of the title, teenage angst is never where you’d expect it to be as the variously pre-occupied pair at the film’s centre strive to deal with their problems with maturity and mutual compassion. 

You might for instance expect Yo (Sara Shida) who has been raised by her father, Nao (Arata Iura), since her mother left the family when she was three to feel jealousy or resentment when he sits her down and tells her that he’s fallen in love and wants to get married, especially as the woman he’s fallen in love with, Yoshiko (Akiko Kikuchi), has a small daughter of her own, Hinako. Attempting to be sensitive, Nao frames the new arrangement in a positive light in that Yo will be have more free time to be a regular teen and hang out with her friends rather than skipping out on after school clubs to take care of the household chores, a spin which could backfire in that Yo has obviously been used to being the lady of the house and might feel as if a responsibility she was proud of carrying is being taken away from her or that she’s being displaced by the new maternal presence of Yoshiko. She may in fact feel a little of this, but rather than lashing out or rebelling against the change in her familial circumstances she does her best to accept it with good grace while simultaneously prompted into a reconsideration of the relationships between parent and child meditating on the absence of her birth mother and wondering how and why she could have come to leave her behind. 

Riku (Oji Suzuka), her sometime love interest, had started a discussion in their friendship group about their earliest memories Yo unable to come up with anything on the spot but later remembering her mother carrying her into the forest and showing her the skeleton flowers of the title which appear bright white when dry but gradually become transparent as they absorb water. Later she remembers something else unsure if it’s a memory or a dream, a feeling of being suspended in mid-air as her parents argued as if everyone had forgotten she existed. Riku too frequently states that he’s “nothing at all”, feeling himself lost and directionless after being diagnosed with a heart condition later forced to accept that his life will never be the same as it was and his choices are now limited in ways they might not have been before. His health anxiety ironically leaves him emotionally numb, unable to identify let alone express his feelings as he becomes close not only to Yo but another, much more direct, girl in his class Saki (Tomo Nakai) who later does him the favour of explaining exactly what his problems are hoping to jolt him out of his emotional inertia while taking him to task for having been unintentionally condescending in his innate kindness. 

It’s this innate kindness that eventually sees both the teens through, each approaching their various worries with a mature compassion. Riku had felt uncomfortable in his familial home and jealous of Yo’s “real family” as she comes to accept her new relationships with Yoshiko and Hinako, but himself comes to understand the complicated relationship between his overbearing grandmother and lonely mother as one of mutual support getting another tip from Yoshiko that even if he feels has no particular talents, also jealous of Yo’s artistic prowess, his ability to support those around him is a talent in itself and an important part of the whole. A robust emotional honesty and the willingness to think things through calmly eventually lead stronger bonds between all concerned, Yo forgiving her birth mother while also embracing a new maternal relationship with Yoshiko, while Riku gains a new perspective of his own and even if he still hasn’t quite learned to identify his feelings is more comfortable with expressing them directly. A gentle, empathetic coming-of-age tale Imaizumi’s teenage drama roots itself in a world of fairness and compassion that allows each of the teens the space to figure themselves out while helping others to do the same no longer transparent in the rain but whole and fully visible not least to themselves. 


Skeleton Flowers streams in the US until March 27 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-up Cinema

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dear Etranger (幼な子われらに生まれ, Yukiko Mishima, 2017)

Dear Etranger posterThe family drama has long been considered the representative genre of Japanese cinema, but with the days of Ozu long gone the family itself has become a subject for reappraisal. Yukiko Mishima’s Dear Etranger (幼な子われらに生まれ, Osanago Warera ni Umare) is the latest to take a scalpel to the nation’s basic social unit and ask what the word “family” means in an ever changing social landscape. In an Ozu picture, one family must be broken for another to be formed – this is the way of things and in the end must be accepted if with sadness, but does it really need to be this way or is there room for more as connections become less easy to define?

Makoto Tanaka (Tadanobu Asano) separated from his first wife some time ago and still spends time with his daughter, Saori (Raiju Kamata), though only a few times a year. Four years ago he married another woman, Nanae (Rena Tanaka), who had also been married before and has two children – Kaoru (Sara Minami) and Eri (Miu Arai). Nanae has recently discovered she is pregnant and is thrilled to bits to add to their family, but Makoto is conflicted. He liked the family as it was and worries that the new baby will place a wedge between himself and his step-daughters, that they may suddenly feel themselves pushed out and not really part of the new family that is being forged by a child who has a blood relation to both their parents rather than just one.

In truth, family dynamics aren’t all Makoto currently has to worry about. A 40-year-old man, he’s also hitting the scrap heap at work – rather than laying people off, they’re transferring them to unpleasant jobs in the hope they’ll resign. A lifelong salaryman, Makoto has been sent to the packing warehouse where his every move is logged on computer and he’s rated for speed. This is partly his own “fault”. Rather than play the salaryman game, Makoto wanted to be a family man. He doesn’t work weekends or overtime, he takes public holidays off, and never stays out late drinking with colleagues – all things which mark your card as an antisocial shirker in workaholic Japan.

Makoto’s superior, warning him about the imminent transfers, criticises his attitude. He tells him that he doesn’t think spending time with his children is his “job” as a father. He sees his responsibility as one of providing a role model and he thinks the best way to do that is to be seen working hard as a “respectable” member of society. Makoto couldn’t disagree more. He works to rule, but wants to be the sort of father that’s there for his kids, not just an authoritarian figure who comes home late smelling of booze and throws his weight around. He knows that as the children grow up they’ll grow away from him and won’t want to hang out with dad anymore, so he wants to spend time with them now while he still can.

Makoto’s intense desire to be a family man is perhaps unusual in Japan where men channel their ambition into work and women are (still) expected to channel theirs into the home. It is therefore doubly painful for Makoto when his elder step-daughter, Kaoru, heading into a difficult age, suddenly rejects him on hearing about the new baby. Despite the fact that Kaoru’s biological father (Kankuro Kudo) was violent towards both her and her mother, Kaoru begins to insist on seeing him, complaining that it’s unfair to be forced to live with “a stranger”. On one level, Kaoru is at the age at which most young women begin to find their father annoying and embarrassing, but her resentment is also informed by a fear of abandonment and cultural doubt about her place in a still atypical family, unconvinced that it’s possible for a man to become a father to a child that’s not his own by blood.

Blood ties still seem to trump all in most people’s minds, but bureaucracy plays its part too. Makoto still insists on making time to see Saori – something which is sadly unusual in Japan where divorce usually results not only in the children losing contact with the absent parent but also the entirety of an extended family. Kaoru doesn’t quite like it that Makoto does this, she feels almost betrayed as if he’s choosing his biological child over her and that continuing to associate with Saori means he hasn’t fully committed to her family. There seems to be an idea that the family unit is a distinct bubble and one can’t be inside more than one at a time, just as one can’t be listed on more than one “family register”. When an emergency occurs and Saori needs to get a lift from Nanae who has Eri in the back of the car, she isn’t sure if it’s OK for her to get in even with her father with her. She suddenly feels awkward, as if her presence in his car with his new family is inappropriate. None of these people know each other – the existence of a parallel family is so embarrassing as to be “unseen”, buried like a scandalous secret and kept entirely separate to avoid any cross-contamination. When Eri asks who Saori is, awkward silence prevails until she is forced to introduce herself as a “friend” of her father’s – something he doesn’t bother to correct until the drive home when another encounter has pushed him into reconsidering what it means to be a “father”. 

Makoto’s strong desire for acceptance and for forging a “family” that is “his” may perhaps seem selfish and possessive, yet he also tries to react with patience and empathy towards others in his position. He tries to be patient with Kaoru, advising her that he doesn’t think meeting her “real” dad is a good idea but if it’s what she wants he’ll try to make it happen. Likewise, he is grateful to Saori’s stepfather for raising his daughter when he wasn’t able to. Finally the walls begin to dissolve and it stops being about who belongs on which bit of paper and starts being about connections forged through love and understanding. The new baby, rather than forcing everyone apart, begins to bring them together, each joined by a feeling of joy and responsibility towards the new life to which they are all connected. 


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)