Based on a short story by Misumi Kubo, Rikiya Imaizumi’s “Skeleton Flowers” is a smorgasbord of contemporary Japanese movie themes. There’s a coming-of-age story about an artsy teenage girl, a love triangle involving the protagonist and two friends, and a family drama focusing on her father’s remarriage and her first encounter with her birth mother after many years apart.

Keeping the film from becoming a jumble are Imaizumi’s sure, understated direction, Kaori Sawai’s artfully structured script and a strong, centered performance by newcomer Sara Shida as the lead. The prolific Imaizumi — he released three films last year alone — has acquired a following in Japan for relationship stories about young adults in the big city. Scripted with naturalistic dialogue, unfolding at a relaxed pace and filled with pointed observations about the pitfalls of modern love, Imaizumi’s films seem to reflect the lives of its arthouse audience, similar to the way Woody Allen’s films once spoke to Manhattanites.

So “Skeleton Flowers,” whose protagonist, Yo, is just starting high school as the story begins, is something of a departure for its director, though his signature style and concerns are still evident. It is also quite different from the many seishun eiga (youth films) with similar elements, which typically overamplify the dramatics while simplifying the stakes.

Skeleton Flowers (Kasokeki Sankayo)
Run Time 105 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

Its emotional volume is lower, for one thing: Instead of seething with resentment when her soft-spoken Dad (Arata Iura) announces that he intends to bring a work colleague, Meiko (Aikiko Kikuchi), into their lives, Yo listens calmly. And when Meiko and her young daughter move in, Yo is mostly accepting, even though the kid is something of a brat.

Meanwhile, her gentle-spirited friend and classmate Riku (Ouji Suzuka) tells her and two other pals that he has a heart problem that will keep him from playing sports and require a major operation. At home, Riku is badgered by his grandmother (Masayo Umezawa) to rest, but he wants to travel like his absent businessman father, whose journeys he tracks on a world map. Then, he impulsively asks Yo to “go somewhere” together, signaling a change in his feelings toward her from friendship to something more. Meanwhile, another friend, the hard-studying Saki (Tomo Nakai), decides to make her own feelings for Riku known when she realizes that he and Yo are dating.

The “somewhere” the couple goes to turns to be a gallery where an artist, Sachiko Mishima (Hikari Ishida), is exhibiting her watercolors. Riku is surprised, however, when Sachiko greets them politely, if neutrally — and Yo storms out. We soon learn that Sachiko is Yo’s birth mother, who left when she was only 3 and has since apparently forgotten her.

The stage is thus set for adolescent turmoil and strife, but the film opts instead for a quieter drama of self-realization and growth, with the adults, even Riku’s nagging grandma, framed as basically well-meaning and supportive.

In contrast to the many Japanese films that focus on similar themes that shade dark in the name of realism, “Skeleton Flowers” is more like Sachiko’s painting of the title flowers — somewhat wispy and idealized, but evocative of its subjects’ youthful transformations. Yo and Riku may not become transparent like skeleton flowers in the rain, but they do reveal their true, inner selves, as do others around them. Their honesty is this film’s beauty.

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