Empty"Your Friends" is the kind of melodrama that often borders on maudlin, but in director Hiroki Ryuichi's hands, that never happens. Working from Saito Hiroshi's screenplay, the film is a grown-up look at friendship and loss during two girls' turbulent adolescence that says as much about coping with illness and disability in modern Japan as it does about friendships that transcend death.
The film's boxoffice prospects, even in its native Japan, seem limited, as "Your Friends" is a deliberately paced, almost internal examination of communication and understanding. Asian-themed festivals will definitely be interested, though overseas release seems like a long shot.
While researching a story on a school for disabled children, Nakahara (Fukushi Seiji) meets Emi, a university student who volunteers at the school. He's drawn to the enigmatic young woman, and after slowly winning her trust, he coaxes her own story from her over the course of several days at the school.
"Friends" slowly unravels Emi's history as a series of flashbacks: As a teenager, Emi (Ishibashi Anna) and Yuka (Kitaura Ayu) were unlikely friends. The two came together after a car accident left Emi with a shattered leg for life. Yuka, meanwhile, had her own chronic illness to deal with, which invariably ended in tragedy.
It's a simple story that has been told countless times in countless films before this. Put together in bits and pieces, "Friends" chronicles the progression of Emi and Yuka's friendship in flashes, leaving plenty of time to reflect on how the pair arrived at the workable place they did. There are tests but no histrionics, misunderstandings but no lingering doubts. Emi and Yuka written -- and performed -- as fleshed out characters, not archetypes, give the film its emotional heft.
Hiroki is best known for the maturity that informs his films: He began his career in Japan's storied pink industry and then burst onto the international scene with "Tokyo Trash Baby." However, it was the sensitive, insightful "Vibrator" and "It's Only Talk" that made him a critical favorite. Here he turns that same incisive touch on teenaged girls and turns out another moving drama about women and how they relate to each other and to the world.