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‘Kimi no Tomodachi’

Immersed in clouds and with a silver lining

by Mark Schilling

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 Ryuichi Hiroki’s new film, “Kimi no Tomodachi (Your Friend),” shows, a childhood friendship can also last a lifetime, in memory if nowhere else. Based on a novel by Kiyoshi Shigematsu, 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 as essential to them as air.

Hiroki, who started his career three decades ago making “pink” (soft-core porn) films, observes his characters’ lives in a small provincial town, from the beauty of the open sky to the casual brutality of school rivalries, with a distant but perceptive gaze. He has little use for the commercial formulas of the seishun eiga (youth film) genre, be they melodramatic plot turns or loud J Pop obliterating the dialogue.

As Hiroki did in films such as “Vibrator” (2003), “Yawarakai Seikatsu (It’s Only Talk)” (2005) and “Koi Suru Nichiyobi (Love On Sunday)” (2006), “Kimi no Tomodachi relies instead on naturalistic dialogue and action. This may feel like doodling to those used to conventional three-act storytelling, but he carefully lays the groundwork for climactic scenes the way a jazz improviser departs from a melody to reveal its deeper structure and drill down to its molten emotional core.

Kimi no Tomodachi
Rating
Director Ryuichi Hiroki
Run Time 125 minutes
Language Japanese

Hiroki prefers to make his visual points with poetically allusive long shots rather than spell-it-out closeups, so it’s no surprise that his central image for the film is clouds, particularly a special cloud that becomes the perfect cloud, against which the girls measure all others.

This may seem a banal choice. Why not add snow for purity and sunshine for happiness? But in the hands of Hiroki and scriptwriter Hiroshi Saito, the clouds that keep appearing in the heroines’ conversation and on the screen are anything but banal. Instead they serve various interconnecting purposes — as a personal symbol of hope for a sick girl, as a private link between two friends and as metaphors for the presence of death in life and the eternal in the everyday. They are also constants in the countryside, where the sky is wider and feels nearer than in the city.

Hiroki’s heroines, Emi (Anna Ishibashi) and Yuka (Ayu Kitaura), begin the film as elementary school classmates, recruited by a teacher to swing a long jump rope for the other children in a school contest. Emi is selected because she has a degenerative kidney disease that makes 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 friends, a bond that is strengthened by their disabilities and that their healthy classmates can neither understand nor share.

As they become teenagers, Emi spends time in a hospital and Yuka finds herself alone again, until she is approached by Hanai (Yuriko Yoshitaka), who envies Emi and Yuka’s friendship and wants 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 Yuka’s vision of Emi’s perfect cloud.

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 quit the club to study for their high-school 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, keeps returning to the friendship of Emi and Yuka, framed by Yuka’s present as a young woman who is still passionate about photography and teaches at a free school for children with disabilities. A brash college student, Nakahara (Seiji Fukushi), visits the school to photograph and interview the children. (Not very successfully, since they are shy of strangers.) He becomes attracted to Yuka — and engrossed in her remembrances of Emi.

Ayu Kitaura glows with a fierce brightness as the prickly Yuka, who has little patience with superficial sympathy, but pours our her grief with a rawness that breaks your heart.

Does Yuka finally find Emi’s cloud? The answer is not as obvious as you might think, but the ending hits the note you somehow knew was coming all along: Sad, beautiful, perfect.