Japanese directors of TV dramas often make films that are basically big-screen versions of small-screen shows. No surprise, since their TV-network backers want product that will work equally well with multiplex audiences and home viewers.
Directors of TV commercials here, however, typically regard films as a respite from their day job, not an extension of it. Yes, some directors with CM backgrounds, such as Hiroyuki Nakano (“Samurai Fiction”) and Gen Sekiguchi (“Survive Style 5+”), deliver eye-catching visuals, much as they would to stop viewers from switching channels during an ad break, but their films also venture into crazily surreal territory where few canned-coffee commercials can follow. (Not that all Japanese TV commercials are sane.)
Then there are CM directors such as the late Jun Ichikawa and industry veteran Hiroshi Ishikawa, in the ad business since joining the TYO agency in 1990, who go in a different, more classically humanistic direction in their films, while avoiding mainstream film conventions. In his third and latest feature, the woman-powered road movie “Petaru Dansu (Petal Dance)” Ishikawa not only chucked the traditional three-act structure, but also did away with scripted dialogue whenever he felt that actors improvising their lines could better express their characters’ true emotions.
“I’ve been using improvisation since my first film,” Ishikawa, looking shaggily younger than his 49 years, explains in an interview at the office of distributor Bitters End. “There are scenes that I shoot according to the script, but I’m always thinking that it’s also OK to depart from it. It’s all right to change.”
Working from his own original story gave him a freedom he might not have had with the usual adaptation from a novel, comic or other property. He wrote the script tracing, as he describes it, “the emotional highs and lows of the characters,” but he was also driven to find out “what was real inside them,” even if it meant going out on an improvisational limb. “I wanted to make that search together with the actors,” he says.
If the script is treated as sacred, he believes, a film can end up communicating only “the reality of the written dialogue,” not true inner feelings. He says that Japanese people, in particular, are not good at communicating “what is truly important to them to the people who are truly important to them.”
“Even if they’re worried about someone, they don’t say, ‘I’m worried,’ ” Ishikawa adds. “Instead they try to put on a cheerful face, as though nothing is wrong.”
His goal, he says, was not to have his actors master lines so much as “play a game of catch with their feelings,” a game that, by definition, required bringing those feelings to the surface.
To make it easier, he tried to cast his lead actresses — Aoi Miyazaki, Sakura Ando, Shioli Kutsuna and Kazue Fukiishi — in roles he felt were close to their real personalities, with one big exception. Fukiishi’s character Miki, who has attempted suicide and is the furthest from the others physically and emotionally, is also, he explains, “relatively far from (Fukiishi’s) true self” in her loneliness and depression. At the same, Miki also has what Ishikawa describes as a “real cheerfulness” resembling that of the off-camera Fukiishi. “She’s a complex character,” he concludes.
To prep Miyazaki, Ando and Fukiishi, who play college pals reuniting after six years, Ishikawa had them gather for rehearsals three weeks before the start of shooting and filmed them just the way he would on the set, while having them talk about their characters’ college days. “I wanted the three of them to come away with memories of their friendship and have an image of how important each of their friends was to them,” he explains.
During the shoot, he then isolated Fukiishi from the others until he filmed the scene of their dramatic reunion. “I wanted to make it seem as though they were really meeting again (after a long separation),” he says.
Prior to this key scene, he even took Fukiishi to the site of Miki’s suicide attempt — a crumbling pier jutting out into a wintry sea. “I had her stand on it,” he says. “I wanted her to come away with the feeling that she had fallen into the ocean and that it had changed her. And she really did change.”
What did not change, however, was Ishikawa’s script, which he completed one week before the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. “I reread the script a while after the earthquake, but I still wanted to film it,” he says. “My way of thinking changed a lot because of the earthquake, but I still thought I should make the film just as written in my original story.”
Disaster or no, the psychology of friendship remains the same, he believes, including the ways it can not only revive, but also die, as seen in the film’s story of an older friend’s enigmatic departure from the life of a young store clerk (Kutsuna), an absence that echoes throughout the film.
“Why do friends who were once close not see each other anymore?” Ishikawa asks rhetorically. “I have a lot of friends like that myself and I wanted to tell their story as well. It’s something that happens a lot in Japan. People get busy … and you naturally stop meeting them. But if you heard that one of your friends had jumped into the ocean, I think you’d to go see them, even if you haven’t met in six years.”
Finally, despite its darker moments, “Petal Dance” is upbeat on friendship’s ability to turn lives around, Ishikawa believes. “I don’t know if it becomes a happy film in the end — perhaps not, but I wanted to make a story about happy people.” Happy especially when they are with friends, and especially when it is no longer an act.
For a chance to win one of three copies of the Japanese-language novelization of “Petaru Dansu (Petal Dance),” written by Machiko Umehara, visit jtimes.jp/film. The deadline is April 30.