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)

Over the Town (街の上で, Rikiya Imaizumi, 2019)

Frustrated youngsters chase an unrealisable dream of idealised romance in Rikiya Imaizumi’s ode to Shimokitazawa, Over the Town (街の上で, Machi no Uede). For the moment at least known as the bohemian, avant-garde artists quarter of the contemporary capital beloved for its slightly retro quality replete as it is with narrow lanes and period buildings, Shimokitazawa is also a place of constant change but as the hero later points out even if “parts change and disappear that doesn’t mean they never existed”. Nevertheless, he seems to be marked by a particular anxiety, as do many of his age struggling to make meaningful connections in an ever shifting world. 

Ao’s (Ryuya Wakaba) world begins to crumble when he’s unexpectedly dumped by his beloved girlfriend, Yuki (Moeka Hoshi), on her birthday. Unceremoniously telling him that she’s met someone else, Yuki rationalises that breaking up is the only option but Ao tries to resist only for her to tell him that he can go on deluding himself that he still has a girlfriend but from now on she’ll be hanging out with someone new. From then on, Ao seems to be surrounded by frustrated couples and worryingly outdated ideas of romantic politics such as those of the students who drop into the vintage clothing shop where he works. Ao assumes they’re a couple, but a row slowly brews as the girl, Asako, declares herself bored with helping the guy, Shigeru, try on clothes that turn out to be for the purpose of impressing a different girl altogether despite knowing that Asako fancies him. Eventually Shigeru makes a highly inappropriate suggestion, almost akin to a bet, that if the woman he has a crush on rejects him he’ll deign to dating her even though Asako is “a distant second” in his heart. The shocking thing is that Asako agrees, a slightly mournful look in her eyes as she finally reaffirms that she really hopes it works out with the other girl. 

Throughout the exchange during which Ao looks on as an awkward bystander, it becomes increasingly difficult to see what’s so great about Shigeru. Meanwhile, not even Ao comes off particularly well, struggling to deal with his breakup and refusing to accept Yuki has moved on. So hung up on her is he that she eventually ends up contacting the barman at his favourite haunt to ask him to have a word, explaining that it’s inappropriate to go on texting your ex even if she doesn’t reply. Meanwhile, he finds himself at the centre of romantic missed connection, captivated by a sad woman at a concert who gives him a menthol cigarette he keeps in his ashtray as a kind of talisman for the rest of the picture. Infinitely awkward, he talks himself out a potential date with the cute girl at his favourite used bookstore (Kotone Furukawa) by asking an inappropriate question, later doing something similar to a woman (Seina Nakata) with whom he makes a more platonic connection as they each reflect that for some strange reason it’s much easier to open up to someone you have no romantic interest in. 

Perhaps that’s why a melancholy policeman keeps stopping random people in the street to ask their advice on his peculiar romantic dilemma in having inconveniently fallen in love with his “niece” (by marriage and the same age as he is, so maybe it’s “OK”, he’d like to think). Shimokitazawa, which Ao rarely leaves, is indeed a small world, the various strands of his romantic entanglements strangely connected from a young woman’s unrequited longing for her sumo wrestler childhood sweetheart to a TV actor’s (Ryo Narita) troubled love life and a young film director’s (Minori Hagiwara) attempt to deflect her own sense of romantic disaffection. Just as Yuki used another man as an excuse to break up with Ao, Ao finds himself recruited as a fake boyfriend to help a young woman shake off a controlling ex whose refusal to accept the relationship is over in the absence of another man skews even darker than his own signalling perhaps like that first vintage shop exchange the dangerously outdated sexual politics which continue to underpin modern dating. Perhaps boring love is the real kind of fun, comfortable and balanced marked by true connection and mutual vulnerability rather than a giddy anxiety. A stubborn holdout where everything’s secondhand in a continual circulatory process of exchange and return, Shimokitazawa is the kind of place where love finds you even if it takes a while to wander on its way. A charming ode to this timeless yet ever-changing district, Imaizumi’s quirky dramedy keeps the neurosis of young love on the horizon but suggests that romance, like a well baked cake, keeps much better than you’d think when cooled.


Over the Town screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)