Kids often make friends easily - and lose them quickly. The boy who was your best buddy yesterday has today found a new friend, a new crowd, a new world that doesn't include you. He has moved on - and you're just part of the receding scenery.
But as Hiroki Ryuichi's new film Your Friends (Kimi No Tomodachi) shows, a childhood friendship can also last a lifetime, in memory if nowhere else. Based on a novel by Shigematsu Kiyoshi, the film examines various sorts of friendships, but its narrative core is a relationship between two girls that begins from conditions neither of them want, but becomes something as essential to them as air.
Hiroki, who started his career nearly three decades ago making “pink” (soft porn) films, examines this relationship with an unfussy sensitivity to the realities of his characters' lives in a small provincial town, from the openness of the sky to the casual brutality of the school rivalries. He also has little use for the commercial formulas of the “seishun eiga” (youth film) genre, be it melodramatic plot turns or loud J Pop music obliterating the dialog.
Like such recent Hiroki films as Vibrator (2003), It's Only Talk (Yawarakai Seikatsu, 2005) or Love On Sunday (Koi O Sure Nichiyobi, 2006), “Your Friends” focuses closely and realistically on outsider female protagonists who make their own peace with the world around them. Unlike them, it also makes broader metaphorical statements about the presence of death in life, the eternal in the everyday.
Hiroki being Hiroki, who would rather make his visual points with poetically allusive long shots than spell-it-out close ups, his main metaphor is clouds, or rather a special cloud that becomes the measure of all the others in the minds of the girls..
This may sound like a stunningly banal choice. Why not add snow for purity and sunshine for happiness? But in hands of Hiroki and his scriptwriter, Saito Hiroshi, the clouds that keep cropping up in the heroines' conversation and on the screen turn out to be anything but banal. Instead they MANCA VERBO? several inter-connecting purposes - as a personal symbol for a sick girl, as a private link between two friends and as facts of everyday life in the countryside, where the sky is wider and feels nearer than in the city.
Hiroki's heroines are Emi and Yuka, who begin the film as classmates in elementary school, dragooned by a teacher into swinging a long jump rope for the other children in a school contest. Emi is selected because she has a degenerative kidney disease that make hard exercise dangerous, Yuka because she has a permanent limp from a traffic accident - that was inadvertently caused by Emi. Yuka resents Emi for this - and her anger reduces Emi to tears. Yuka's heart softens - and the two girls become fast friends, a bond, strengthened by their disabilities, that their healthy classmates can neither understand not share.
As they grow to young womanhood, Emi (Ishibashi Anna) spends more time in the hospital and Yuka (Kitaura Ayu) finds herself alone again, until she is approached by Hanai (Yoshitaka Yuriko), who envies Emi and Yuka's friendship and wishes to experience something like it herself. But Yuka cannot forget Emi - or her story about a cloud in the hospital children's playroom (called the “friends room”) that made her feel happy and free. Emi's dream is to become a cloud herself, watching over Yuka everywhere. Yuka begins to photograph clouds - and paints one for a now bedridden Emi that is her vision of the perfect cloud in Emi's story.
Another plot thread concerns Yuka's socially awkward younger brother, now in the seventh grade, who worships a school soccer star and childhood friend - and is crushed when the star ignores him. Still another deals with a ninth grade boy who is no longer on the soccer team - all ninth graders by custom quit the club to study for their high entrance exams, but still tries to lord it over the younger team members. He, it turns out, has no friends at all.
The film, however, returns to the story of Emi and Yuka, framed by Yuka's present as a young woman who is still passionate about photography and interested in kids with disabilities. Then a young man, Nakahara (Fukushi Seiji) visits the free school where she teaches as a volunteer. He becomes attracted to her - and engrossed in the story of her unusual friendship.
Kitaura Ayu shines with a fierce brightness as Yuka, who has little patience with superficial sympathy, but feels the pain of loss with a rawness that breaks your heart. And her cloud photos (taken by Hiroki himself) are little glimpses of paradise. Does Yuka finally find Emi's one perfect cloud? Her search doesn't end the way you might think - but feels right and true.