After a little pause I recently rediscovered Ryuichi Hiroki. You've seen reviews of New Type and Girlfriend, Someone Please Save The World pass by not too long ago, Hiroki continues his winning streak with Kimi no Tomodachi. A pretty typical Hiroki film that will easily please his fans but also has the strengths to pull in a new audience. If you're up for a relaxing Japanese high school drama, here's your chance.
In Kimi no Tomodachi (Your Friends) Hiroki returns to familiar grounds. He has his female leads, his semi-realistic style of directing and a fair portion of Japanese drama to fill this two hour long film. If you didn't like his earlier films chances are you might not be immediately swayed by this one either, but it is a relatively accessible film and Hiroki-virgins could do little wrong if they started out with this particular film.
While all the usual ingredients of a standard Japanese drama are present, Hiroki choses a different yet interesting perspective to tell his tale. Mostly told through flashbacks, the film sees Nakahara (a wet behind the ears journalist) arrive in a little town to report on a school for disabled children. This is where he meets up with Emi, an introvert girl that doesn't really like intrusions of her protected little world. Through flashbacks of her youth we learn about Emi's emotional wall, built to keep most people at a distance. At the same time we see the relationship between the two grow stronger.
The flashback doesn't necessarily focus on Emi but rather they highlight one of the people in her immediate environment. Through these relationships we learn more about Emi's background. This might take some getting used to as the film actually switches main characters a few time while the actual main character is usually just a secondary character in these flashbacks. A somewhat unusual approach, but it works well.
Visually Hiroki is at the top of his game. Some clever 'realistic' camera work at the start of the film (some shots in the school for disabled kids feel like documentary material) easily transport you into the drama, more stylized shots later on bring some visual glamor to the film. It's a neat little trick that brings the best of two worlds together.
The soundtrack is a bit more poppy than usual. It's not the first time Hiroki works with J-Pop ballads but there are quite a few here. None too sappy though and they fare quite well in between the more traditional dramatic music (think soft piano tunes). It's not really my preferred type of music but the way Hiroki incorporates these songs into the film doesn't really irritate either.
Acting is predictably strong, once again. A very young cast really gives their all to make the characters come to life. I've seen Hiroki in person and that helps a little in trying to figure out how he succeeds in getting such performances from such a young cast. The man radiates a certain sense of control and has a calming aura that can easily put people at ease. Still, quite an accomplishment to get these kind of performances from your actors time and time again.
Kimi no Tomodachi is the perfect film is you're longing to enjoy a short trip back in time, to the laid-back times of high school. Soccer training, hanging around with your friends, learning to cope with whatever drama life throws at you. It's all in there, wrapped in an enjoyable, comfortable and warm coating. By now Hiroki is quite familiar with the mechanics of the genre and he turns the wheels like a real pro.
The film is a little long, especially as it continuously switches perspective along the way. This might alienate some people expecting a tightly wrapped storyline, at the same time it brings a bit more variety to adequately fill the 125 minutes running time. It all depends on what you're looking for in a film. Personally I liked the variation and the unique look it provided on Emi and her background.
Kimi no Tomodachi is a perfect little treat. It's not a wildly original film but it introduces enough elements to differentiate itself from other Japanese dramas while keeping the usual traits firmly in place. Hiroki is one of the masters of the genre and if you haven't seen any of his films by now, this is a good opportunity to do so. If you're already a fan of his work, this is a definite recommend.