Skeleton Flowers (2021) review

Introduction

Despite creating some amazing narratives – all dealing with love in some way or another, Rikiya Imaizumi remains an underappreciate director. Just Only love (2019), His (2020), and Over The Town (2021) are all narratives worth checking out, whether you are a fan of Japanese cinema or not. Can he, with Skeleton Flowers, a film based on a short story by Misumi Kubo, add another must-see to his oeuvre?  

Review

One night, Yo Kunikida (Sara Shida), who is soon to be a high school student, hears from her father (Arata Iura) that he has a girlfriend and that he intends to marry her. Not that much later, he organizes a dinner party to formally introduce Yo to Yoshiko Tabata (Akiko Kikuchi).

A few months later, Yo enters high school together with her friends and, as expected, joins the art club. Yet, Miyao (Yuto Endo) and Saki (Tomo Nakai) find it strange that Riku (Ouji Suzuka) joined the art club. He tells them that, due to the discovery of a heart deformation, he cannot play any sports anymore and therefore decided to pursue art.

Skeleton Flowers (2021) by Rikiya Imaizumi

Skeleton Flowers offers a very serene exploration of how subjective conflict does not only impact the affective relation of the subject to his own image, but how this changed affective relation creates missed encounters at the level of speech. Yet, ultimately, Imaizumi shows that the very path of resolving one’s subjective conflict lies in directing subjective signifiers to an Other that is willing to accept them.  

Yo’s inner conflict is, as becomes quickly evident in Skeleton Flowers, determined by her mother’s radical absence. Yet, the kernel of the conflict that marks her as subject does not lie in the fact that she had to grow up too quickly due to her parents’ romantic failure – realizing a position with respect to her father that is both daughter and wife, but in the fact that her mother left her behind. It is this act that puts the truth of her love for Yo radically into question and inflicted an injury that pains her subjectivity. Can she find a way to overcome the conflict of being desired or not by the mother?

Skeleton Flowers (2021) by Rikiya Imaizumi

The spectator is also quickly led to wonder whether Miwa Sachiyo (Hikari Ishida), the water-colour artist, is not her biological mother. This is not only implied by her subtle emotional breakdown after encountering the artist at her private exhibition – a breakdown that leaves Riku puzzled, but also by her emotional reaction upon discovering that Yoshiko’s daughter teared some pages out of an artbook by the same artist.

Riku, on the other hand, attempts to speak and make his subject heard, only to be radically silenced by his grandmother (Masayo Umezawa) – he is, to put it more crudely, reduced to mere silence by her. While the grandmother obviously has nothing but her grandson’s good on her mind, the way she orders her daughter-in-law, Riku’s mother (Naomi Nishida), and Riku around shows that she is forcing them to identify with her own ideal-images (i.e. the ideal of the ill person and the caring mother) as determined by her own knowledge (e.g. ill people need to rest, ill people should not eat too much salt, …etc.).

Skeleton Flowers (2021) by Rikiya Imaizumi

This situation, marked by a radical absence of a father-figure, makes it difficult for him to resolve the conflict that, due to his sudden illness, has crumbled the anchoring point of his subjectivity (Narra-note 1). As he cannot pursue a basketball career anymore, his ego is left wandering without any kind of direction – he is nothing. His silences subtly resound his inability to re-write what he is, as image and meaning, as well as to realize what the other means to him. His lack, by complicating his self-image, influences the way he sees and interacts with the other. Yet, maybe, an encounter with a (m)Other can enable him to use the signifier and inaugurate the start of his journey to regain a certain direction for his subjectivity.

What stands out in Imaizumi’s composition of Skeleton Flowers is not simply that he relies on static shots not that he keeps his dynamism subtle, but that he crafts a slow-moving visual rhythm that allows him to underline the presence of emptiness and accentuate the very elegance of the spatial stillness.

This stillness is further emphasized by the naturalistic sound-design. It is, as a matter of fact, by elegantly playing with sound-contrasts – i.e. the sounds from nature and society highlighting silence as such or the silence that separates two speech-acts, that Imaizumi succeeds in making emptiness sensible for the spectator. In a similar way, musical accompaniment (i.e. the minimalistic piano pieces) is often utilized to echo subjective emptiness and to musically resonate that what speaks through silence – i.e. facial expressions and bodily presence (Music-note 1).     

Skeleton Flowers (2021) by Rikiya Imaizumi

The silence that lingers within the narrative spaces is, as the spectator easily feels, nothing other than the emptiness that marks Yo and Riku as such. This emptiness, so beautifully carried by the performances of Sara Shida and Oji Suzuka, echoes the presence of a certain conflict between the subject and the (m)Other, of something unsaid that nevertheless determines her presence within the social field. This emptiness, furthermore, highlights the fact that subjects often fail to encounter each other within speech – speech is, first and foremost, a field of misrecognitions regulated by that what remains unsaid.

Yet, it is via their performances that a sensible rhythm is given to their subjective emptiness. The receding of such emptiness is, simply said, function of the inter-subjective nature of their encounters, of an encounter that touches the subject. Sara Shida and Oji Suzuka bring their characters so pleasingly and naturalistic to life that those signifiers and expressions that carry their romantic desire do not fail to touch the spectator. In truth, it is the very background of subjective emptiness, so elegantly evoked by Imaizumi and his leads, that enables that what carries desire and expresses emotionality to resound with the spectator.    

Skeleton Flowers is a very serene coming of age romance narrative. Yet, what elevates the narrative is not simply the serene nature of the narrative nor the stillness that marks the composition, but how Imaizumi utilized his composition to support the emotional rhythm of his protagonists. By doing so, he succeeds in giving the signifiers where the subject resides their emotional weight, hereby creating a serene but touching narrative about reaching each other as subject despite the misrecognition that structures speech.  

Notes

Narra-note 1: While Yo struggles with the reason of her mother’s disappearance, Riku struggles with the riddle of what bind his mother to his ever-absent father. Both subjects’ question in their own way the reality of love.    

Music-note 1: Different kind of musical pieces are, in some cases, utilized to evoke a different kind of emotions. In one instance, string-like music is utilized to evoke Yo’s happiness with the new family constellation.

Yet, such moments are elegantly utilized to underline an emotional rhythm within a given character – from subjective emptiness to a kind of emotional fullness.

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