Japanese Title: きみの友だち
Romaji: Kimi no Tomodachi
Release Date: July 26th, 2008
Running Time: 125 mins.
Director: Ryuichi Hiroki
Writer: Hiroshi Saito (Screenplay), Kiyoshi Shigematsu (Original Work)
Starring: Anna Ishibashi, Yuriko Yoshitaka, Ayu Kitaura, Seiji Fukushi, Naoyuki Morita, Nao Omori, Akira Emoto, Tomorowo Taguchi
A train cuts through expansive fields under wide blue skies. As it meanders along the track the landscape changes, the line edging through hills crowded with the houses of a quiet rural town in Japan. Once it reaches its destination off the train steps a journalist named Nakahara (Fukushi) who is heading to a school for disabled children with the intention of making a documentary of the place.
He tries taking pictures of the kids and interviewing them but the pupils are all shy around him and avoid answering questions. However, with their teachers they bounce around in class, giggle and get involved with lessons and display a sense of liveliness and excitability, ingenuity and originality in the way they see the world. One teacher in particular is very popular with the children and she catches the eye of Nakahara.
Her name is Emi (Ishibashi), a young woman who attends college and volunteers at the school. She uses a crutch to walk and seems introverted but the kids adore her. One of the things she does is to take photographs of clouds and allow children to pick their favourite ones and take them home when they graduate.
Nakahara tries to spark a conversation with her about photography but his efforts fall on stony ground as he meets her tough and cynical outer shell. She seems to resent his attraction which is masked by an insincere sympathy. “The kids and I aren’t on show,” she warns him.
In truth, Nakahara is attracted to her but his overconfidence leads to blunt questions. “What’s wrong with your leg? Were you born that way?”
With an exasperated sigh and a little reluctance she replies, “I’ve been this way since childhood… Why do you want to know?”
“I find you interesting.”
It would be easy to write off Nakahara’s persistence as the thrill of chasing after a defiant Emi, her rebuffing of his interest spurring him on, but he is more intelligent. He has seen how the kids love her and, as he watched her play with and admonish them about their boisterous behaviour good-naturedly, he witnessed how much she loves them in her own way. He can sense that underneath her tough exterior is a heart as big as the sky that stretches over them.
Under a setting sun which colours the school a warm orange and in the face of her open irritation he persists in talking to her whilst she packs away the kid’s toys with her brother who visits the school from time to time to help out. She eventually relents to Nakahara’s constant chatter and tells him a little more about herself.
And then the film jumps back in time to when Emi was a child in elementary school, before she used a crutch. Popular, pretty, and precocious, she is on track to become an alpha student. She takes notice of Yuka (Kitaura), a girl left out of school events because of a kidney disease. On a rainy day, in a moment of charity, Emi breaks away from her friends and goes to offer Yuka an umbrella which leads to her getting involved in a traffic accident that leaves her with a permanent limp. As she becomes left out of school activities, Emi is disconsolate over the change in her life and blames Yuka. Yuka is devastated at the thought of being the cause of Emi’s accident and possibly losing the one classmate who was willing to interact with her and break through her isolation and so she apologises, genuine tears in eyes and upset in her voice. As the two are relegated to the less strenuous roles in class due to their infirmities they spend more time together and Yuka slowly relents on her anger. Soon the two share sweets, secrets, and shoot the breeze as their friendship becomes set in stone. What binds them together to begin with is that they experience their disabilities with each other, something others will never understand as well as they can, but it deepens with the time they spend with each other.
The two mature into teenagers together but what starts out as a story about Emi and Yuka soon encompasses a wide cast of characters from the local area because as Emi must visit the hospital more often, Yuka is left alone and looks in on the lives of those around her through her hobby of photography. Another classmate of Emi’s, Hana (Yoshitaka), has seen the friendship between Emi and Yuka and wants to be part of something like that as she suffers medical problems. Emi’s younger brother finds himself losing touch with a childhood friend who has become the school football star. Sato (Emoto), a former player in the school team is at a loss over what to do with his days after leaving the team to study for exams. A raft of high school students feature, not just those who are most popular but the thoroughly average and less gifted and those who are in the background. All are important. All have a place in others’ lives no matter how tiny but the film always returns to Yuka and Emi. As they grow older they continue to hold memories of each other, precious ones, and leaving people with good memories is the most that anyone can ask for in our fleeting lives.
These memories and more are relayed to Nakahara who is so enraptured with the depth of feeling in Emi’s tales of ordinary days and lives he forgets his own documentary project and asks questions about what happened to who and where everyone is now. Emi has kept the photographs she has taken and she shows him. This neatly allows the film to dip in and out of different narratives that swirl around Yuka and Emi and allows the film to examine different types of friendships, male and female, adult and child, and the value of them and its effect is potent.
Through the structure of showing photographs director Ryuichi Hiroki’s film mirrors the process of remembering treasured moment. Fragments of memories drift up in no particular order, only to come into focus as links between people are made creating a mosaic of everyday life.
The title Kimi no Tomodachi translates as your friends and the people in the film are so relatable that they could be your friends; this could be your world. It is like experiencing life in small town Japan and the people who exist in reality.
Hiroki’s film has a documentary feel thanks to the long takes and the
way the camera is stuck at the periphery of scenes, observing people in a non-judgemental way while the film moves at a gentle pace. There are no sweeping camera moves or absurd sets or costumes to distract the audience, and the acting features no hysterics or melodramatics. The world and the people in it are not made alien through heightened styles, characters’ act and talk in a real manner and we feel like we are involved in some of the most intimate and formative moments of their lives. These characters and the places they exist in –whether liminal or permanent – are all relatable and so the film takes on a universal quality that makes it easy to understand. Kids go to school and attend lessons; they go home and loaf around. They experience disappointments and joy with the familiar burning resentments and the beaming smiles of happiness, parents dote on their kids and vice versa although both sides can be solipsistic and caring, dazed by life’s rough edges and thankful for graces like friendship pulling them into happier places. As in reality there are times when nothing happens but these moments are just as important because of all the details the audience can pick up on such as disquiet over being unable to socialise as easily as others or the difficulty of negotiating everyday problems. The steady camera and the dedicated acting from a cast of brilliant actors who give their characters so much life enable the emotions translate from the screen brilliantly.
At first the style made me feel that the film was meandering as it detailed the lives of so many characters but like Nakahashi I soon became enraptured in the details. There is a sense of gravitas given to the people on screen and their actions and these coalesce into moments of sheer emotional power. One moment will stay with me for as long as I exist and it was the moment when a painting was shown on screen. Just the sight of a painting of a cloud and where it was placed came as a shock that made me shed tears because it spoke so much about the depth of feeling that the character that would see it every day had for their friend. When I think back to that scene I still get emotional about it. What struck me was that through the simple prop, something so innocuous, I came to understand the distillation of themes in the movie that a person can treasure small things because they are imbued with love and dedication and friendship, things that cut through the loneliness and isolation we all feel. It was so profound and so moving it justified everything, every slow moment and every quiet moment that had gone before. There are more moments like this but for me it was the crescendo of a well-told series of tales. Hiroki’s low-key direction worked its magic.
The film encompasses a series of memories held by an ordinary girl but despite how ordinary they are it treats them with the respect they deserve and shows how they have enough of a profound impact on the lives of the characters that they will always be remembered. Through this and the believable characters we in the audience understand, almost tangibly, how memories of others live on. As I draw this rather long review to a close I am reminded of the final words of a lonely travelling salesman who told his story to the young protagonist of a story by manga-ka Oji Suzuki,
“I’ve told you the story of my memories. I hope it somehow becomes even just a tiny piece of your memory. Cheers!”
The story of Yuka and Emi and those around them will stay with me and that’s a testament to the powerful writing, directing and acting I saw on screen. I’ve told you the story of my memory of the film. I hope you see it and make the film a piece of your memory. Cheers!
Here’s the film’s theme as discovered by Haikugirl for her review! I also used two pictures from it. Go visit and see what she thinks of the film.
Here’s a great remix: