Friends come and go, don’t they? Years pass, lives change and people we regularly hung out with or were actually close to become no more than memories or, today, updates on Facebook. But as Hiroshi Ishikawa’s “Petaru Dansu (Petal Dance)” shows simply, but rightly and poetically, we may still care more than we think.

Hearing that a former college classmate has jumped into the frigid winter sea in an apparent suicide attempt, Jinko (Aoi Miyazaki) and Motoko (Sakura Ando) decide to visit her, for the first time in six years.

They borrow an old car from Motoko’s understanding former husband (Masanobu Ando) and enlist Haraki (Shiori Kutsuna), a younger woman Jinko befriended in unusual circumstances, as a driver. They journey to the snow-covered north and find their friend, Miki (Kazue Fukiishi), recuperating in a hospital, but physically unharmed. The four women then spend the day together. And that, in outline, is the story.

Petaru Dansu (Petal Dance)
Director Hiroshi Ishikawa
Run Time 90 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens April 20, 2013

Ishikawa, a TV commercial director whose two previous features “Su-ki-da” (“I Like You,” 2005) and “Tokyo.Sora” (“Tokyo Sky,” 2002) are similar small-scale dramas, developed not from the usual comic or novel, but an English lyric for a TV ad song: “The flower petals danced.” Inspired by this image (one not, he comments in a program essay, found in Japanese) eight years ago, he began writing notes, actually poetic prose, that became the basis for the film.

Friends, he observes in the same essay, are like petals fluttering together in the breeze. They then go their separate ways, and “even though we can imagine them fluttering by themselves,” he continues, “they no longer come to one place to dance together.”

So the film is about the three old friends and one young outsider becoming the dancing petals of the title. Not so much unburdening their souls — we never learn in any detail why Miki made her leap — as finding a common language and rhythm, through silence and gestures as well as words.

There is Haraki’s habit of muttering under her breath when she sees a bird or glider in the air. A now absent friend, Kyoko (Hanae Kan), told her that if you make a wish when you see something flying, it will come true. When she tells this to Jinko and Motoko, they also begin to look to the sky; that is, the three of them begin “fluttering together.” The object of their trip, they realize, is get the quiet, withdrawn Miki to flutter with them as well.

Instead of giving his four main actresses the usual chunks of dialogue to memorize, Ishikawa had them improvise much of their performances. The result is a casual, if purposeful, melding of talents and personalities revealing facets we don’t often see in their other, more conventionally acted films. Miyazaki, the cast’s biggest name with the biggest role, tones down her trademark sprightliness as Jinko (though she still flashes her trademark megawatt smile). Instead she is more silently observant and, in a scene with a friendly boy (Shunsuke Kazama) who painfully longs to be her boyfriend, more sexually confident that we are used to seeing from her on the screen.

But it is Fukiishi as the suicidal Miki who grounds the film in a deeper reality than the rather wispy, if lyrical, female-bonding sequences that make up its bulk. Ishikawa’s strategy of keeping Fukiishi apart from the rest of the cast until the film’s key scene — Miki’s reunion with her old friends on a hospital roof — pays off in the stark impact their normality has on a woman mentally fragile and, as we come to see, ashamed of what she has done and become.

In the scenes that follow, there is a tentativeness but also a tenderness as Miki relaxes into an old companionship she may have once taken for granted and perhaps since forgotten, but that now feels warming in the chilly Northern wind — and that may even save her life.

That’s what friends are for, isn’t it?

Fun fact: Mariko Goto, Osaka-born ex-vocalist of the punk band Midori and now a solo singer, makes her screen debut playing a Kansai-dialect-speaking store clerk who befriends the younger Haraki.

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